Putting teacher-led research to work

Written by: HTU | Published:

Graham Handscomb argues the case for practitioner-led enquiry, reflection and research at the heart of successful schools

School-based enquiry and research are now being seen to make an important contribution to self-evaluation, improvement and the professional learning of staff.

For teachers who have engaged in researching their own school and classrooms it has not only brought new insights, new levels of understanding and new challenges, but has enhanced the quality of teaching and learning at the same time.

In these schools it is about turning intuitive and spontaneous judgements into more systematic investigations, starting with the everyday questions which teachers ask themselves:

  • Why do children behave the way they do?
  • Why do some children seem unable to learn?
  • Why is my teaching sometimes effective and at other times not?
  • What would make for a happier, more productive classroom?

One primary school set out to promote and support research engagement and maximise the benefits it gave. 

This primary school was part of a cluster comprising a group of rural primary schools in the far north of Essex with a tradition of choosing to work together on learning, teaching, and research activity. 

For its initial research project, the school staff chose to evaluate the effectiveness of its new ICT suite. Strategies introduced as part of the evaluation led to considerable improvements in children’s ICT skills. 

A few years later, the cluster schools found that they were all facing a similar problem: children seemed to lack motivation and appeared unable to take responsibility for their own learning. So this became the focus for the school’s second piece of action research.

During this piece of research, staff realised that they needed to communicate more clearly so children could become more aware of how to improve their work for themselves. 

Staff became much more explicit with children about exactly what they needed to do to progress to the next level. They also introduced a range of strategies for children to provide feedback on their level of understanding in lessons. 

Assessment results have improved in the two years since the research, with a big increase in the number of children attaining Level 5 in English, maths and science at key stage 2. 

The headteacher explained how the project benefited children: “They have developed a language for learning and can articulate what they need to do to get a Level 5. They are resourceful, but more importantly children have ownership of what they’re doing and they’re much happier as a result.” 

The ICT co-ordinator also noticed the difference: “Children are more critical about what they want to do. They’re not afraid to say if they don’t understand something. They don’t sit back passively – they are very independent and responsible now.”

The impact of action research has been felt on the whole school because all of the teaching staff and teaching assistants have been involved. They planned the research together and shared their work during staff meetings and training days. 

The headteacher concluded that: “Our research engagement helped us to create a culture of learning across the whole school community, involving adults and children alike. The children feel we’re there to help them; that we’re on their side. It’s a great way of ensuring professional development has an impact.”

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has recently launched its Research Mark, designed to recognise and celebrate the work of early years settings, schools and colleges which have made a real commitment to doing and using research to improve their practice. Organisations applying for the Research Mark will have to provide evidence of an enquiring, learning community, improving pedagogy and impact on children.

Trained assessors will study the applications, visit all applicants to gather further information and provide useful feedback. Organisations which meet the criteria will be awarded a Research Mark for a period of three years before they need to re-apply.

In the last decade, a good deal of evidence has emerged that such research engagement helps school leaders to develop their schools and make them exciting places to work, with widespread recognition of the huge difference it can make to staff and collaboratively across school alliances. 

  • Professor Graham Handscomb is an NFER Research Associate.

Further information



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

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