Any activity designed to improve a school in any way should be backed by evidence that suggests that the effort is going to be worthwhile. One of the great joys of working in education is appreciating the differences between schools, although this diversity is one of the greatest challenges to establishing coherent policies across the country. Given this, the role of school-based research is clear; it gives schools the chance to better understand the specific needs and characteristics of their own setting, and the opportunity to inform their own practice to best respond to those needs and characteristics. In Leadership Matters, Andy Buck suggests that ‘an evidence-based approach is about combining one’s own experience, observation and analysis with what external evidence suggests. That way you can work out what is going to work for your students in your setting’ (Buck, 2016). He also suggests that this means that senior leaders are more likely to tell middle leaders what will work because they have more experience. As a school, we have attempted to weave research into our work to achieve these goals, and to spread our research practice through different areas of the school community. To this end, we have established opportunities for staff to engage in small-scale research projects and utilise the parent body through a parent research group, and given students the chance to engage with the field through a student research group.

During professional development and appraisal conversations last year, we learnt that some staff are put off the prospect of pursuing a Master’s degree because of the scale of the commitment. As a result, we established an in-house programme, led by one of our assistant head teachers, which gives staff the chance to research an area of educational practice that interests them. Having chosen a topic under the guidance of a senior colleague acting in a mentoring capacity, the group of five colleagues pursued an initial programme of reading to critically evaluate their field and to establish a plan of action for their research.

They then carried out that plan, using their own classes as the basis for the work. This encourages that crucial link in educational research, bridging between general research findings and the specific setting of the school. This focus was encouraged by the mentors during the planning phase and will be incorporated into the final reports and feedback produced by the teachers involved. Their findings will be reported back to the whole staff, who will then be encouraged to incorporate the findings into their own practice as appropriate.

The staff involved are investigating best practice in digital learning; the impact on final outcomes of a mid-unit test strategy; the value of ‘do now’ activities (Lemov, 2014); student-centred learning in computing; and links with the local community (specifically the town museum) to increase engagement in history.

We hope that giving staff the chance to engage with research on a small and manageable scale in the first instance may encourage them to go on and carry out more significant research, potentially for Master’s qualifications, in due course, safe in the knowledge that their basic understanding of the research process is secure and that they have something to
contribute.

One challenge with regard to research in schools is to better know your community and its priorities. Much of this is hard to quantify and so schools attempting to research these needs have to accept this. We have adopted two contrasting strategies to try to better understand the views of our parents. Firstly, we established a parent research group. This is a group of around 20 parents representing a cross section of families within our school community. They meet each half-term, under the leadership of the deputy head, to discuss areas of interest to the school’s senior leadership team. This allows us to take soundings about developments, informs decision-making and helps the parent body better understand some of the other factors involved in decision-making in schools. In this way, research can be a two-way process. Secondly, we have used modern online questionnaire tools (in our case, Google Forms) to gather responses from a large number of parents about complex issues. For example, we wanted to engage our parent body in a rewrite of our sex and relationship education policy to make sure that a) parents were aware of contemporary issues in the area, and b) we were addressing issues relevant to our community. An interesting and valuable side effect of seeking parental views was the number of conversations between parents and their offspring that took place as a consequence.

Students are a rich source of information about their own education, and learning how to carry out research is a worthwhile activity for them. A small group of students, led by sixth formers and supervised by an assistant head teacher, is trained in some basic research techniques and given a brief by the senior team. Once the research is done, the group will then report their findings back to the senior team. The transient nature of the membership of student groups means that the quality of the outcomes is sometimes a little variable, but the students involved get a very useful learning experience as a result.

Our experience is that engaging in research in these ways has a range of positive outcomes. Engagement with, and understanding of, parental views has increased since the establishment of the parental research group. This has allowed us to respond better to their needs and helped them work more effectively with us. Staff have been talking about research more during this year as a result of the direct engagement with the process by a larger number of colleagues. As that process moves on, we hope to see identifiable impacts on classroom practice, based on the findings of the projects. As with so many things in education, it is an evolving picture, but one that we hope will contribute increasingly effectively to school improvement.

References

Buck A (2016) Leadership Matters. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Lemov D (2014) The Do Now: A Primer. In: Doug Lemov’s Field Notes. Available at: http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/now-primer/ (accessed 23 March 2017).