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The challenge is how to make it happen

In 2014, UCL Institute of Education launched its Research and Development (R&D) Network to bring together colleagues across education to create capacity in the system to engage in and with educational research. In Chris Brown’s recent book (2015), Leading the Use of Research & Evidence in Schools, Toby Greany comments that:

The evidence that research can impact positively on teacher practice and school improvement is strong. The challenge is how to make it happen.

We are therefore keen to ensure that our work with schools, including this exciting programme with CTSN middle leaders, draws the research base for evidence-informed practice and effective professional development so that key staff are involved, R&D activity is manageable in the day to day melee of school life and that, crucially, it makes a difference both for pupil learning and staff practice.

As Catherine Davis has said in her blog, our mission certainly chimes with CTSN’s vision to create a space for middle leaders (MLs) to network with colleagues and learn about how to evaluate the impact of their work and lead research-informed change in their teams. By building their confidence and skills as leaders, researchers and lead practitioners, we hope to increase capacity for R&D within the 11 schools involved and across the network and to develop new insights into key areas of current school practice.

In co-designing ‘How do we know it works?’ with the lead school, Saffron Walden County High, we’ve considered the following issues up-front.

Involving the ‘right’ people

Middle leaders play a crucial role in driving school improvement, ‘making it happen’ on a daily basis with their teams. Much of the professional development they receive focuses on their roles as team leaders and managers, monitoring pupil progress and holding colleagues to account. This programme aims to develop the potential of middle leaders to be ‘catalysts for change’ (Louise Stoll in Brown’s 2015 book), helping them to bring about evidence and research-informed change in staff practice and pupil learning. Through this creative and pupil centred approach to middle leadership, we hope to build capacity for R&D within and across network schools.

Continuity and sustainability

Staging the programme over two academic years gives us an opportunity to trial and evaluate approaches this year for wider roll-out and evaluation in the coming year. MLs on the programme are able to lift their heads from the day-to-day of delivery to thinking strategically about their potential focuses for 2017-18. Recruiting two MLs from each school increases the potential reach and impact of the work in schools and provides mutual support back at base. Catherine is in contact with senior leaders in each of the schools who are overseeing and supporting the work from a strategic perspective.

Link to school improvement

MLs were asked to propose potential research focuses in their applications and these needed to relate to school and departmental plans. As we’ve begun to explore these in the first two sessions, and gather baseline data about t

hem, the questions have shifted slightly – which is completely normal! A number of schools are exploring the balance between effectiveness, quality and efficiency in assessing progress and providing feedback, with a focus in some on what great verbal feedback looks like. Others are investigating how to support less economically advantaged children by involving parents more closely in school life or evaluating the impact of strategies already in place to address underachievement. Curriculum change and its relationship with classroom practice is also shaping priorities with one school reviewing effective spelling strategies and another looking at how to prepare students for the challenge of synoptic assessment.


The sessions run from 2.30pm to 5.30pm rather than after school so MLs have the space to think and collaborate away from the school day. We place an emphasis on the smart use of data and evidence already available in school so that the evidence-gathering process is efficient and linked to day to day practices. We also use the session time to analyse data, design additional research tools and access the research base so much of the R&D planning and preparation occurs in this protected time. We also encourage MLs to think about how they can use existing structures and meeting time for professional learning and for bringing colleagues into their R&D projects back at base.

There will be more from me about our approach to evaluating impact and the research we’re drawing on to support the R&D projects in future blogs. We hope to hear from some of the MLs next who’ll be sharing their initial ideas and progress.

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