Action research: The Centre for Inspiring Minds

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Research-engaged: The team at ACE International Schools celebrates its Research Mark accreditation. (l-r) Therese Forbes (board member), Phil Hodkinson (board chair), Ben Hren (head of centre), Latifa Hassanali (programme manager), and Chris Johnson (CEO)

The teacher-led research work at ACS International Schools is supported by their very own Centre for Inspiring Minds. Dorothy Lepkowska finds out more

Working outside the constraints of a national curriculum gives ACS International Schools certain freedoms. They are able to innovate, design and develop a curriculum that is appropriate for the needs of its diverse population of students.

This group of schools – which includes three schools in London and Surrey and one in Doha, Qatar – also uses these freedoms to maximise its effectiveness in teaching and learning through action research.

Continuous improvement is a running theme through the school’s ethos and culture and there is an expectation that teachers are reflective in their classroom practice. The schools are unique in having set up their own Centre for Inspiring Minds (CIM) to support their teaching staff and facilitate this work. The CIM, which is staffed with experts and offers a huge pool of materials and resources, has links to top British and overseas universities.

ACS International Schools were recently awarded the Research Mark from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the work done by staff in using research to further its aims and improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Ben Hren, the head of the CIM, explained: “What we do is build educators’ capacity to collaborate professionally and to use and generate data that provides evidence of the effectiveness of teaching and learning and innovation for continuous improvement.

“All of our teachers are required to create self-directed professional growth plans for themselves as part of their CPD.

“This could take the form of lesson observations or lesson study, but it can also mean action research. We give teachers a range of options so they can curate their professional growth based on their interests and the practice they want to develop, while at the same time creating something that can be shared with others within the school.”

With the CIM on-site, staff conducting action research are well supported and know their research will be evaluated to the highest standard. Some action research projects comprise groups of teachers collaborating in two or more ACS schools, and working on larger and more in-depth projects.

In one project, staff used electronic baby simulators to teach a unit on relationships and parenting as part of its PSHE and sex and relationships education provision. The electronic baby is programmed to behave like a real infant, and the pupils’ responses to the simulator are logged in the baby’s computer system, giving teachers an indication of how students are applying their new learning.

Mr Hren said: “The project has given us qualitative feedback on whether we’re effectively delivering PSHE and SRE, and what values, attitudes and disposition come out of those experiences in class.”

Another teacher-led project looked at the learning potential of the schools’ extensive grounds and outdoor spaces, and how the educational needs of primary-aged pupils in the lower school could best be met through an outdoors-based curriculum.

Pupils were presented with a story about life in Medieval England, which they then had to expand by becoming the characters in the story and developing the plot. They were then asked to record and reflect on their experiences, and teachers noted how much they’d enjoyed the creative side of the exercise and learning from their classmates.

Typically, there are up to 10 action research projects taking place at the ACS schools at any one time, involving the participation of more than 30 teachers.

The NFER report on the Research Mark observed a “demonstrable commitment” among senior leaders to research-informed professional practice and to developing ACS International Schools as a “robust and sustainable learning community”.

The report’s author, Professor Lesley Saunders, a research associate at NFER, stated: “There is now a considerable history of encouraging staff to engage in and with research, with the result that ACS has a well-articulated vision for research as a core value of the professional practice of teaching.”

The CIM gives an annual presentation to each school informing staff of the opportunities that are available to them through action research. Staff who are interested in participating then submit proposals and ideas which are assessed on explicit criteria, including intended affects on learning outcomes.

Prof Saunders’ report noted: “Involving the whole school in research and enquiry helps to develop a community of reflective practitioners.”

It added that the allocation of time, materials and expertise to enable engagement with research and enquiry was “a clear indicator of the value the school places on research”.

Mr Hren added: “Action research projects provide practical knowledge about how we can make things better. Successful projects will demonstrate improved student learning, including faster or deeper acquisition of concepts or skills, and progress with students who have learning challenges that might make it difficult for them to meet grade-level expectation.

“But it also develops reflective thinking among the teaching staff and how they can use evidence from students to inform.”

The senior leaders at ACS International Schools take a broad view of “research”, acknowledging the importance of self-evaluation, reflective practice and collaborative enquiry. This dedicated focus is successfully aligned to their aims in bringing about positive changes in teaching and learning.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information

The Research Mark – supported by Headteacher Update – is a national award scheme endorsing schools. You can gain accreditation from NFER if you are engaging with research, in-school research (known as enquiry) and evaluating evidence. Register for free and download your welcome pack, containing application criteria, case studies, our guide for senior leaders and more. Visit

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