Research-engaged schools – a self-review tool


Knowing where to start when creating a research-engaged school is difficult. Getting an understanding of what’s involved and recognising where you are on the journey is crucial. Caroline Fisher advises.

In a recent edition of SecEd’s sister publication Headteacher Update, Dr Julie Nelson asked the question “what is your research goal?” – tackling the somewhat thorny issue of whether academic research and teacher enquiry could complement rather than compete with each other as tools for a self-improving teaching profession.

Dr Nelson advocated a place for both, writing: “By identifying your school’s development needs, the questions that can answer them, the research that already exists, and the gaps that still need to be filled, it should be possible to identify whether further enquiry is needed. And how, and with whom, it can best be compiled and applied.” (See further information for a link to the full article.)

These ideas are gathering support from grassroots advocates, including deputy headteacher and education blogger Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) who, in a recent blog post for NFER, said he felt that: “One way to achieve a truly self-improving school system is to deploy research evidence as a buffer against the whims of political policies, and provide school leaders with the ballast of usable evidence.”

This all sounds good, but how does it work in practice? And who is going to do this work? For starters, there is a good deal of evidence that engagement with research and in enquiry does help schools improve. 

Those that use academic or professional research findings to support change often have the best outcomes (Schleicher, 2011). Schools that adopt a culture of enquiry, underpinned by an understanding of academic or professional research, are most likely to improve teaching and learning and improve outcomes for young people (CUREE, 2011).

In terms of implementation, there is an increasing trend in schools for dedicated “research leads”. Research leads are a member of staff appointed to the task of facilitating and implementing evidence-informed practice within and throughout their school. 

This pioneering role is broadly defined by Mr Quigley as having a remit to:

  • Help teachers find the right question/s.

  • Help find the research evidence.

  • Help appraise the evidence.

  • Help translate the evidence.

  • Help share the evidence.

  • Help embed the evidence.

  • Help evaluate the evidence.

Such is the interest in this area that in recent months the flourishing ResearchED movement, led by evidence evangelist Tom Bennett, sprouted an offshoot, the Research Lead Network, designed to help research leads connect with like-minded individuals and to foster closer collaboration between schools, universities and researchers.

The first national Research Lead Network event (supported by NFER and the CfBT) took place in December 2014, with another planned for March 2015 and more thereafter. As sell-out events, their popularity is evident, with practitioners from across education flocking to hear the likes of Alex Quigley and Carl Hendrick, the research lead at Wellington College, share their experiences of research lead roles. 

Also presenting at the inaugural December event was Gareth Mills, head of the Enquiring Schools programme at NFER, who introduced the new NFER Self-Review Tool. 

Designed specifically for those interested in research in an education setting, the Self-Review Tool helps research leads to answer the question: how can engaging with research help my school to improve?

It enables individuals to review their school’s research engagement against eight key statements and, importantly, is a free online tool, open and available to all. Delegates at the Research Lead Network meeting commented that they would use the tool “to start the process of auditing where we are as a research school”, “to evaluate our self-evaluation processes and the impact of our research-driven CPD programmes, informing school improvement planning”, and “to review current practice and identify areas for development”.

The tool adopts three simple steps:

  • Review your setting’s stage of engagement against NFER’s eight key statements.

  • You are provided with a chart and report giving suggestions on how to progress.

  • You are signposted to useful resources to help your school move forwards.

The eight key statements have been developed by NFER researchers in collaboration with teachers and other education professionals to show what a research-engaged organisation looks like. The statements come under eight headings:

  • Leadership and vision.

  • Learning and participation.

  • Managing resources.

  • Setting priorities and using research to inform action.

  • Using a rigorous methodology for enquiry.

  • Evaluating the impact of evidence-informed enquiry.

  • Embedding and sustaining enquiry.

  • Working collaboratively.

There are two ways practitioners could use the Self-Review Tool.

  • Quick review: ideal for individuals who want to see what is involved and get a report and resources specific to their review. There is no log-in and no details or results are stored.

  • Full review: this allows a representative from the school to create an account, allowing all staff to complete the review and then gives an average picture for the whole organisation. 

The results can be filtered by role (not individual) to see different perspectives. The results are saved and can be revisited to see changes over time. It also creates a pdf of the report and resources to share with stakeholders.

Ideally an individual would try out the tool first using the quick review and then extend it to the full review to do it more formally and widely.

So what happens next? Once a school has reviewed their engagement with research and in enquiry, they can use the report (which highlights “next steps”) and the resources (which are linked to the review answers) to put together an action plan (linked to the school improvement plan). 

Ideally, the school would then revisit the Self-Review Tool at a later date, repeat the process, and look at what has changed (and what hasn’t). This would be an on-going process.

Designed specifically to help a research lead establish their current situation (before they put together an action plan), the Self-Review Tool should be seen as an “aid” or, as it says, a “tool” to help them recognise what is going well and what should be prioritised.

Recognising your efforts

Another way to gain recognition for engagement with research, is to apply for the NFER Research Mark. 

Supported by SecEd and its sister publications Headteacher Update and EYE, as well as the National Union of Teachers, the National College for Teaching and Learning and others, the NFER Research Mark asks a school to provide evidence of research engagement across 10 criteria. 

An NFER research associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. 

For help or advice on this process, visit

  • Caroline Fisher is product manager at The NFER.

Further information



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