Research and evidence in the classroom

Written by: Gareth Mills | Published:
Evidence-based: Students at Wexham School, which is among those to have embraced teacher-led, action research

The number of schools embracing teacher-led, action research is growing. Gareth Mills explores why there is increasing enthusiasm from teachers for an evidence-informed education system and looks at some examples from schools already adopting this approach

‘We are mad!” said one of the teachers at a recent celebration of learning to mark the end of a year-long enquiry into ways to improve the quality of students’ writing. MAD, I am pleased to report, is an acronym for “making a difference”.

Teachers belonging to the Aspire Academy Trust had come together to share some of the results from a number of evidence-based enquiries that they had undertaken in collaboration with the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). As the groups shared their portfolios; which included photographs, samples of students’ work, the results of surveys and so on, it was clear to see the sense of pride and enthusiasm on display.

As thoughtful professionals, they were able to describe how they had identified a genuine need, examined existing evidence, piloted an intervention and captured the impact against a baseline. And they were certainly making a difference.

As head of the Enquiring Schools programme with NFER, I have the pleasure of visiting schools across the country to support teachers setting up programmes of professional learning that use evidence-informed enquiry as the main approach to school improvement.

What I really enjoy is seeing the coming together of evidence and practice in very tangible ways. You can read all the research you like but until it gets translated into something of practical value in classrooms it remains abstract theory.

I believe that this is why the methodology of collaborative enquiry is so powerful. It provides time, the most precious commodity in schools, for teachers to explore, absorb research, try something out and see how well it works. This is all done in a climate of trust and respect. The methodology feels more like valued professionals exploring the potential of a strategy rather than a top-down directive about an approach that must be implemented.

In the end, it is the quality of translation and application of research evidence in classrooms by teachers that makes the difference. Teachers are the people who breathe life into the research for the benefit of students.

Recent research by the Teacher Development Trust, entitled Developing Great Teachers, came to a similar conclusion. It suggested that the most effective CPD is rarely a one-off event.

CPD that is most likely to make a difference takes place over time, is based on genuine local need, uses evidence and involves collaborative and investigative strategies.

There is a real groundswell of interest in this area. The recent success of organisations like researchED and resources such as the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit are illustrative of a growing awareness of the power of research engagement in schools.

As part of this growing movement, NFER recently celebrated the 1,000th user of our Self-Review Tool. The free online tool has been designed to help schools evaluate where they are with their engagement with research and enquiry.

They benefit from getting a picture of current practice, an outline action plan of where they might go next, as well as signposts to a range of resources that can help on their journey.
So why is there growing interest in this approach? I think it is driven by a number of things.

First, there is the obvious and on-going desire of teachers to do the best for their pupils. As a result, new ideas, underpinned by a solid foundation of supportive evidence, are always welcome. Undoubtedly, for some, the relentless focus on test and qualification data is another reason that many school leaders are looking to try strategies that are associated with proven measurable effects.

I think there is an element of frustration too. School leaders have to manage so much change driven from the centre – changes in curriculum, assessment without levels, new tests, revised qualifications, new school types and so on – that it is refreshing to begin a programme that starts with “the needs of my pupils, my teachers in my school”.

At Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow, their rationale for engaging in research is to address more thoroughly and expertly the learning needs of their students. The school has a considerable history of encouraging staff to engage with research and in enquiry, resulting in an embedded culture where research is valued and, according to assistant headteacher James Simpson, “it is perceived to be part of what good teachers do”.

Meanwhile, Simon Wall, headteacher at Lexden Springs, a special school in Colchester, talks about the empowering effect of evidence-based enquiry: “I feel the level of teacher debate has rocketed in the school. No longer are we doing things because ‘that’s how we do them’, we are now asking ‘does this really work?’, ‘what will work better?’ and ‘why doesn’t that work?’.”

Meanwhile, Liz Harris, the research lead at Wexham School in Slough, said: “What I am most happy about is getting staff to believe they are having an impact. What they are doing in the classroom, based on their outcomes, is going to improve their practice and the learning of our pupils.”

Using and applying evidence in the classroom is a useful counter-balance to the some of the more overstated claims made by politicians and commentators in the media. We are all prone to “confirmation bias”, which is the tendency to favour evidence that confirms our existing beliefs, while filtering out those that challenge us.

Being open-minded is not as easy as most of us think. Having the facility to suspend judgement, question your own assumptions and let the evidence speak for itself, is a difficult but important capacity for reflective professionals.

That is why it is great to see the growing enthusiasm for an evidence-informed education system. Alongside the users of the Self-Review Tool, an increasing number of schools are applying for the NFER Research Mark, which is supported by SecEd.

Like other quality marks, it is a way to acknowledge and celebrate the commitment of a school to using evidence to help inform their thinking, decision-making and professional learning.

The Research Mark is one way to affirm that we are part of a vibrant community of learning professionals. We all need affirmation – the sense that our efforts have been noticed and are valued. It is part of what keeps us going and makes the hard work feel worthwhile. In the end, we all want to make a difference. Sometimes, we all need to feel that we are MAD.

  • Gareth Mills is the head of the Enquiring Schools programme at NFER.

Further information

The NFER Research Mark

The Research Mark, supported by SecEd and our sister publication Headteacher Update, gives recognition to schools for the work they have done on research engagement. It includes a visit to the school by an NFER research associate to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. For more information, visit


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