Data for self-evaluation

Written by: HTU | Published:

Claire Easton looks at the importance of gathering evidence to help self-evaluation and school improvement and offers best practice guidance

Unannounced inspections, a new framework, no more self-evaluation form (SEF) – the Ofsted landscape is changing rapidly, with more pressure than ever on schools to keep track of what they are doing, and how well they are doing it, through on-going self-assessment and reflection.

An “outstanding” rating can be won or lost over the quality of evidence showing a school’s commitment to improving outcomes for its pupils, which makes collecting this information more critical than ever.

Why collect evidence?

It is not possible to know what pupils, teachers and school communities think about school life, to know how and where improvements have been made, and can be made in the future, without collecting the evidence and weighing it up.Not only is this information necessary to support inspection processes, but perhaps more importantly it helps drive improvement, raise standards and provide better outcomes for pupils.

Research evidence also develops understanding of efficient and effective ways of working and can help justify, promote and explain decisions around policy and practice. This will become increasingly important for schools in an era of greater autonomy.

How to collect evidence

There are number of methods for collecting information or data, which broadly speaking fall into two categories: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative data lends itself to exploring issues in detail and in greater depth than quantitative methods allow. Qualitative research most often involves interviewing, generally with small numbers or groups of people; it tells you the reasoning and answers the “why?” questions, but does not tell you how many people think the same thing and cannot be used to make generalisations.

Quantitative methods, such as surveys, provide an overview of “what?” and “how many?”. Quantitative research does not tell you why something is the case; it just tells you what the situation is. Often research organisations will employ quantitative methods to provide a rounded picture of what is happening within a population and then follow up the “why?” questions through qualitative methods.

Planning is essential – be clear about what you are exploring and why. You should refer back to your research questions and aims throughout any research period or project to ensure the focus throughout remains on its intended topic area. It is easy to get distracted by new, interesting, unexpected and emerging issues.

Ethics must be considered when carrying out any research, regardless of whether it is an in-house exercise or has been commissioned externally. You must get participants’ consent and it is essential to be clear with them about how the information they provide will be used now and in the future.

Consideration and protocols around safeguarding and disclosures must be decided at the outset, even when the research topic is not deemed “sensitive”. Additional ethical considerations must be applied when working with vulnerable people and those with disabilities, learning difficulties or SEN.

Action research

Action research is very common within school settings, with teachers and students carrying out their own research on a live topic. Action research is a way of investigating a situation, relationship or problem that strives to seek a better understanding in order to bring about improvement.

Action research enables the person or people carrying out the research to be part of the process and encourages reflection and change through its process. It is carried out in collaboration with the research participants and is not “done to” them.

Essentially, action research follows the circular principles of reflection, planning, action and observation, which can be very useful for schools trying to self-evaluate and improve.

Research with young people

Getting pupils to carry out their own research can be a great way of unearthing the real issues facing young people at school and in the wider world, as more often than not youngsters are more willing to talk openly with their peers – particularly around personal or sensitive topics.

Developing young people to become researchers can help engage gifted and talented pupils or conversely those that are disengaged in education as it helps them find their “voice”, feel listened to and empowered.

It can help build confidence and provides the opportunity to develop new skills such as teamwork, communication and analytical thinking. For schools and teachers, working with students to carry out their own research offers authentic insights into the real issues facing them, helps build positive relationships and enhances professional development.

As part of a case study for the NFER, one deputy headteacher said: “It’s something every school should do. It’s very powerful and changes lots of things in a school when children do it. Children see things adults don’t.”

Attitude surveys

Within many schools, research organisations are commissioned by the schools themselves or local and national government to carry out research on a larger scale. National surveys are carried out to provide an overview of issues within a local authority, region, or at a national level. These provide a snapshot of an issue in time across different contexts.

While providing a national picture, attitude surveys for pupils, parents and staff, for example, can also offer schools an efficient way to consult effectively where schools are given direct feedback on their setting’s community view.

Gathering such information at a wide and local level can help schools evaluate the views of pupils, parents and staff, providing data for school’s self-evaluation based on objective evidence. Furthermore these surveys, when carried out across a wider population, can help provide other settings by which to compare results. Surveys provide:

• Impartial results to help schools to identify areas of strength and weakness as part of their ongoing improvement.

• Data to help prepare for inspection.

• Opportunities to track effectiveness compared to other schools in supporting improved outcomes for children and young people.

• A less time consuming way of collecting information for schools.

Getting an external body to carry out research provides independence to the results and enables schools to receive the findings without needing to carry out their own analysis and reporting.

The prospect of embarking of data-gathering and research can be daunting, but is unquestionably worth the effort in terms of the potential benefits at a pupil, teacher and school-wide level. In some respects schools do not really have a choice but to undertake evidence-gathering, but putting some time and effort into considering which methods will work best in each individual context will reward you with the right information to feed into the life of the school.

For further information on carrying out action research in education, download the NFER report Action Research Making a Difference in Education (Volume 1), authored by Alison Lawson.

Also see the research toolkit – The How-to Guide from Practical Research for Education – also by Alison Lawson.

For more information on the work of NFER, visit

Other useful research websites for teachers include:

Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education.

CUREE aims to support and develop the effective use of research and evidence in education to improve practice and policy, and to help raise standards. They have resources on mentoring and coaching, including the National Union of Teachers’ e-learning mentoring and coaching package – which is fun to use and offers insights into how these techniques can be used. A useful site for teachers who are either working on their own professional development or in a school which is planning to use mentoring and coaching to provide CPD.

The National College for School Leadership.

This site is primarily aimed at leaders – of early years, schools and children’s centres – and offers research, guidance and tools in its leadership library. Resources are categorised into different areas covering succession planning, multi-agency working and models of leadership. Particularly useful is a guide on how to use research to improve your school, which provides handy tips on how to get started with your research, as well as supporting information and resources to help you on your way.

Research in Practice.

This site is aimed at those wishing to start doing education research as well as those already practising. It provides guidance and tips on how to run your research. Look out in particular for the evidence bank, which contains reports on research reviews, the content of which relates to the Every Child Matters agenda.

• Claire Easton (main article) is a research manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) with special interest in participative research, the empowerment of children and young people, school improvement, and conducting research to support children’s services authorities. Emily Houghton (further recommended websites) is an information and reviews officer at the NFER.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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