Embedding classroom research

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:

Headteacher Update is a supporter of the NFER’s Research Mark accreditation. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how classroom research helped one school to bounce back from a poor Ofsted result

Restoring staff morale and demonstrating what outstanding teaching and learning look like were priorities for Andrea Williams when she arrived at Abingdon Primary School in Middlesbrough as headteacher. The school had been placed into special measures by Ofsted and needed to make improvements.

She set up a series of CPD programmes geared towards the areas that Ofsted said needed action, beginning with one entitled “Developing Expertise 2013/14”, to enable staff to share good practice and contribute to discussions about strategies for good pedagogy in literacy and numeracy.

Most of the staff were already effective practitioners, but the inspectors’ judgement had left confidence low.

The school also became involved in a wider programme across the Middlesbrough Teaching School Alliance of which they are a member. The project, “Accelerating a Culture of Learning: Developing People”, involved collaboration with the Education Endowment Foundation and the Universities of Durham and Teesside.

Since then its “Developing Excellence Programme – Support Staff 2014/15”, an on-going cyclic programme of in-school research, has led to teachers carrying out a minimum of two observations of colleagues with an additional allocation of five hours per teacher/teaching assistant per-year to plan, meet, analyse impact and draw conclusions for a final report. Staff are expected to reflect, discuss and make changes if necessary throughout the year.

Its commitment to research and enquiry has resulted in Abingdon Primary achieving the NFER Research Mark at the “Extended” level.

The Research Mark is based on eight key elements of a research-engaged school. NFER’s free Self-Review Tool can be used by schools to review what stage they feel their school is at before applying for the Research Mark.

The eight elements are based on: leadership and vision; learning and participation; managing resources; setting priorities; rigorous methodology; evaluating the impact; embedding and sustaining; and working collaboratively.

Other schools that have successfully achieved the Research Mark say it has helped to shape their school’s improvement plans.

Mark Hannon, head of St Fidelis Catholic Primary School in Bexley, said: “The NFER Research Mark has played a central role in developing our senior leaders’ understanding of how to support teachers in their own critical evaluation of pedagogy.”

At Paget Primary School in Birmingham, Carole Thomas, an assistant headteacher, added: “We were keen for our staff to carry out their own research into what works, apply this through their own enquiries and to understand the difference this approach could bring to their classroom practice, and teaching and learning.

“INSET days are all very well, but being told how to do something and going off to do it on your own to see how it works with your pupils is something else entirely.”

Back at Abingdon Primary, senior leaders have set over-arching improvement goals for the whole school but individuals can opt to do a research project of their choosing and, as a result, staff have been involved in a wide range of enquiries – topics included, for example, how to get year 5 girls more involved in class discussions, how boys can be better engaged in writing at greater length, and how to encourage persistence in mathematical problem-solving among pupils.

Ms Williams said: “The impact for the school of improving teaching and learning through research is that all staff are engaged in finding answers to our children’s barriers to learning. Real questions about how our children are learning are generated by teachers and teaching assistants in every year group through the scrutiny of half-termly pupil data.

“We then work collaboratively to decide which action might best serve to close the gap for those groups of pupils who are not making the same progress as their peers.

“We don’t just accept the first action that comes into our head, but through professional discussion and academic research, we identify those that might be successful before deciding on the actual model we will investigate.”

Staff were organised into triads to discuss and evaluate their findings, which were then drawn together into a report highlighting significant outcomes and how these may shape teaching and learning at the school. Sometimes the lessons learned in one project inform subsequent pieces of enquiry and actions around the school.

The overall outcome of the research projects has been a rise in pupil achievement.

Ms Williams said: “Our pupil progress and attainment has risen from a low starting point to being at, and sometimes above, the national average by the time children leave us in year 6. Over the last four years our attainment has risen by an average of 20 per cent across reading, writing and mathematics.

“The culture in our school is now a feeling of ‘we can help all our children if we can find the right key to unlock their potential’. The value of staff collaboration cannot be underestimated. Staff with low confidence, knowledge or skills are quickly engaged and supported to become staff with a high level of expertise. The quality of teaching has improved greatly as staff are now trialling actions based on national and international research findings.

“The Research Mark is a great way of celebrating the work and achievement of both the staff and the pupils. The external moderation of our processes gave us some really positive feedback. We also enjoyed having an objective point of view which gave us some food for thought. If schools aren’t already involved in their own action research programme the NFER materials are a really useful way of finding out more.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

NFER Research Mark

Schools can apply for the NFER Research Mark to gain recognition for the work they have done on research engagement. Supported by Headteacher Update and its sister publications SecEd and EYE, the NFER Research Mark asks a school to provide evidence in response to eight questions. An NFER research associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. For more information on the Research Mark, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/resmark and to use the free Self-Review Tool, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/selfreviewtool


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