Research and evidence in the classroom

Written by: Gareth Mills | Published:
Research-engaged: (l-r) Alison Willmott, NFER facilitator, Katie Sutherland, head of school at Brooklands Farm Primary, and Mary van der Heijden, NFER facilitator

The number of schools embracing teacher-led, action research is growing. Gareth Mills explores why there is a growing enthusiasm from teachers for an evidence-informed education system and looks at some examples from schools already adopting this approach

“We are mad!” said one of the teachers at a recent celebration of learning to mark the end of a year-long enquiry into ways to improve the quality of students’ writing. MAD, I am pleased to report, was an acronym for “making a difference”.

Teachers belonging to the Aspire Academy Trust had come together to share some of the results from a number of evidence-based enquiries that they had undertaken in collaboration with NFER. As the groups shared their portfolios, which included photographs, samples of students’ work, the results of surveys and so on, it was clear to see the sense of pride and enthusiasm on display.

As thoughtful professionals, they were able to describe how they had identified a genuine need, examined existing evidence, piloted an intervention and captured the impact against a baseline. And they were certainly making a difference.

As head of the Enquiring Schools programme with NFER, I have the pleasure of visiting schools across the country to support teachers setting up programmes of professional learning that use evidence-informed enquiry as the main approach to school improvement. What I really enjoy is seeing the coming together of evidence and practice in very tangible ways. You can read all the research you like but until it gets translated into something of practical value in classrooms it remains abstract theory.

I believe that this is why the methodology of collaborative enquiry is so powerful. It provides time, the most precious commodity in schools, for teachers to explore, absorb research, try something out and see how well it works. This is all done in a climate of trust and respect. The methodology feels more like valued professionals exploring the potential of a strategy rather than a top-down directive.

In the end it is the quality of translation and application of research evidence in classrooms by teachers that makes the difference. Teachers are the people who breathe life into the research for the benefit of students.

An example of the growing interest in research engagement, was demonstrated when NFER recently celebrated the 1,000th user of the NFER Self-Review Tool. The free online tool has been designed to help schools evaluate where they are with their engagement with research and enquiry. They benefit from getting a picture of current practice, an outline action plan of where they might go next, as well as signposts to a range of resources that can help.

So why is there growing interest in this approach? I think it is driven by a number of things. First, there is the obvious and on-going desire of teachers to do the best for their pupils. As a result, new ideas, underpinned by a solid foundation of supportive evidence, are always welcome. I think there is an element of frustration too. School leaders have to manage so much change driven from the centre – changes in curriculum, assessment without levels, new tests, revised qualifications, new school types and so on – that it is refreshing to begin a programme that starts with “the needs of my pupils, my teachers in my school”.

At Brooklands Farm Primary School in Milton Keynes, staff looked closely at their pupils’ needs, teachers’ needs and what the evidence says to help develop their focus for enquiry. Among the themes they are exploring this year include maximising the effect of peer learning and feedback in mathematics, developing strategies to encourage more reading for pleasure, and getting the best out of homework.

Katie Sutherland, head of school, is a strong advocate for building bridges between practice and research, believing that “action research is at the heart of powerful learning for teachers”.

Simon Wall, headteacher at Lexden Springs, a special school in Colchester, talked about the empowering effect of evidence-based enquiry: “I feel the level of teacher debate has rocketed in the school. No longer are we doing things because “that’s how we do them”. We are now asking: “Does this really work?”, “What will work better?” and “Why doesn’t that work?”

That is why it is great to see the growing enthusiasm for an evidence-informed education system. An increasing number of schools are applying for the NFER Research Mark. It is a way to acknowledge and celebrate the commitment of a school to using evidence to help inform their thinking, decision-making and professional learning. The Research Mark is one way to affirm that we are part of a vibrant community of learning professionals. We all need affirmation – the sense that our efforts have been noticed and are valued. In the end, we all want to make a difference. We all need to feel that we are MAD sometimes.

  • Gareth Mills is the head of the Enquiring Schools programme at NFER.

Further information

The NFER Research Mark

The Research Mark, supported by Headteacher Update, gives recognition to schools for the work they have done on research engagement. It includes a visit to the school by an NFER research associate to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. Visit

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