Research Mark: Supporting the research journey

Written by: Ed Cuffe-Adams | Published:
Action: Staff at St Fidelis Catholic Primary School in Bexley with their Research Mark

Headteacher Update supports the principle of schools engaging with research to inform their initiatives, which is why we support the NFER Research Mark. Ed Cuffe-Adams speaks to two schools at different stages on their research journey

Research is becoming an established part of life in many primary schools. Whether it is used to weigh challenges against the national picture, or to emulate the success of high-achieving peers, a system of research can lead to real and positive change in schools.

St Thomas More Catholic Primary School in Bexleyheath is one such school looking to embark on a research programme. Deputy headteacher Sarah Hancock registered the school to the free online Self-Review Tool from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) so that all the staff could see what is meant by "engaging in research".

She said: "It's easy for teaching to become an insular role, and it is important for us to look outwards for resources to help us. I thought the whole idea of the research tool and finding out how the staff see the school was very useful, because it has made them think more about it."

As the NFER's Caroline Fisher explained, change in many schools takes place when they take the lead in their own transformation: "NFER developed the free Self-Review Tool to give school leaders and research leads a simple way to review their school's research engagement. This is a good place to start and helps to identify areas to work on and resources to help with this."

The Self-Review Tool presents its findings in an online infographic and helps schools to plan strategies to move forward and track their progress.

After their initial findings, St Thomas More School plans to allow planning, preparing and assessment time for staff to complete research projects in year groups from September. Each staff member will see what research is available and run their own projects.

"We've had some important discussions as a result," Ms Hancock added. "It will be good to revisit it in a year's time to measure the differences."

Catherine Quirk, deputy headteacher at St Fidelis Catholic Primary School in Bexley, agrees. "We went through NFER's Self-Review Tool as a leadership team, thinking about the research each of us was doing," she explained. "We didn't realise how much we read between us. The tool helped us identify our collective strengths and where we needed to move together. Now we base our entire development plan on research."

Clearly, a self-run research strategy can bring in concrete improvements and, in time, primary schools can start to think of their research as not just a duty, but an asset.

Schools can display their commitment to research by applying for the NFER Research Mark. This recognises systematic improvement by engaging with research and enquiry.

St Fidelis has fostered an integral relationship between research and the school's whole approach to improvement. For this and its refinements over time, NFER recently awarded St Fidelis the Research Mark.

"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," explained headteacher Mark Hannon.

St Fidelis is so engaged with its research that it is now a local hub school. It supports a group of primaries and secondaries to review their approach to research.

"Through NFER we accessed insights from Professor Graham Handscombe, an expert in this area," Ms Quirk continued, "which led to a new philosophy of reflective teaching. We focused on enabling our teachers to question their own methods."

The school uses specialist teachers in each subject to free-up time in their schedules for research. Its unique "teaching trios" method groups teachers in threes to coach each other and develop together.

"The approach comes back to the children in surprising ways," Ms Quirk said. "We introduced the notion of 'growth mindsets' into our assessments after reading the work of Professor Carol Dweck. We took steps like adding the word 'yet' into negative feedback, as in 'standard not yet achieved'. We imply that the child will get there in the end, rather than shutting down their aspiration.

"Now, in our feedback we use new language to hone in on specific reasons why they achieved their goal. We found this gives a child more understanding of why they are successful and reduces their anxiety if they do not meet the same standard next time. The children who respond to the growth mindsets in turn encourage their classmates to do the same, which has a wonderful effect on the whole class."

  • Ed Cuffe-Adams is a freelance writer and education journalist.

Further information

Research Mark
Schools can apply for the NFER Research Mark to gain recognition for the work they have done on research at whatever their stage of the journey. Supported by Headteacher Update and its sister publications SecEd and EYE, as well as the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, National Union of Teachers and others, the NFER Research Mark asks a school to provide evidence in response to 10 questions. An NFER research associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. Visit

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