Research at the heart of education

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:

SecEd is a supporter of the NFER’s Research Mark accreditation. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how the Research Mark and related resources can help schools on their journey

Every school has objectives: whether to raise standards in literacy, narrow the gap between different socio-economic groups, or just to liaise more effectively with parents.

Sometimes, though, the challenge is how to find a solution to the problem or an effective route to achieve improvements. The day-to-day life of running a school can leave little time for reflection.

David Joshi from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) believes that by following tested methodologies, engaging with professional research, conducting in-school enquiries and evaluating evidence, essential decisions can be informed.

He explained: “A school will naturally set its aims. This might be linked to an issue identified by their Ofsted inspection or an aspiration to be better at an aspect of their work. What we are suggesting is that they connect with robust professional research to see how this relates to their own needs, while carrying out their own in-school enquiry to trial an investigation in their own environment. Any outcome or findings can guide a school towards solving their issues and meeting their aspirations.”

The first step is self-review, which can help to evaluate how engaged the school is as a whole in the process, as well as how engaged individual staff are. The NFER has a free self-review tool to measure research engagement using an eight-step process.

“This tool provides schools with the bigger picture and offers a starting point,” Mr Joshi explained. “It can be used as a monitoring tool to present an accurate picture, perhaps towards the start of an academic year and again a year later to establish how much progress has been made.

“The tool highlights the level of a school’s engagement with research and enquiry. It provides clear signposts to guide their next steps. This includes direction to further services, websites, literature and online advice. Some schools may be unsure how to get started, while others will be using established techniques already. Either way, this tool provides free guidance.”

For some schools, that advice might lead them to the NFER’s Enquiring Schools programme. This is a handheld approach to teacher development and school improvement, built around enquiry-based projects carried out by teachers, with support from an NFER facilitator. Enquiring Schools aims to provide teachers with the scope and opportunity to tackle key issues or aspirations, often through action research projects. This new approach and set of principles can then be used to inform whole-school policy and on-going school improvement planning. The programme is designed to fit into the CPD drive of each school over a period of time.

Elsewhere, some schools may access NFER’s range of research-based “How To...” guides and research books. They provide guidance for those wanting to increase their engagement with research and enquiry. This literature offers advice across topics including research planning, action research, using focus groups and randomised control trials.

The NFER also has a range of themed research reports, case studies, videos and topics or methods for research available for free on its website. Mr Joshi added: “Sometimes schools may just need some guidelines and support to keep them on track and these resources can help them to drive from within.”

There are schools which are effectively and productively engaged with action research already. Staff in these schools will be experienced at carrying out their own studies, evaluating the findings and implementing them as part of their teaching and school improvement plan. This is where the Research Mark can come in.

“Such schools might want to apply straight away for the Research Mark so that they can receive national accreditation and certification for what they have achieved,” Mr Joshi continued. “When applying, schools inform us on how they engage with research and enquiry over time, which sets of objectives they addressed and how teachers were involved. Our facilitators evaluate their documentation, visit the school, spend time with staff and understand how the school has progressed as well as review changes in practice.”

Our facilitators write a report evaluating the school’s research work and include a set of further recommendations where applicable. Finally they set an accreditation level before the Research Mark is awarded.

Mr Joshi added: “We want to reward schools who have made important decisions and achieved significant achievements or changes through their engagement with research, enquiry and evaluating evidence. We also aim to help steer their future thinking with additional recommendations where needed.

“The Department for Education’s new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development states that successful CPD should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise, include collaboration, challenge and be sustained over time. Furthermore, it should place a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes. We are fully in agreement with these principles and this is mirrored in the work we do with schools.”

Journey to the Research Mark

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information

For details of the resources available to support research-based practice in schools, visit


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