MA Investigations: Why might schools use research?

This post is one in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it!


Teacher professional development is one of the key factors in generating the best outcomes for students (Sutton Trust, 2011) and has shown to be critical in retention of quality teachers (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and well being and motivation (Howard, 2020). Creating the right culture for teachers to develop is known to be effective (Kraft & Papay, 2014; 2016), and there has been significant interest in this as an area for investigation. The rise in research-informed practice has been one of the methods by which UK schools have attempted to raise standards, though it has not been universally accepted.

For my MA, I used a remotely-gathered random sample of 320 teachers to explore the attitudes towards the relationship between teaching and learning cultures, and the use of research informed practice in the secondary sector, in a relatively under-studied area of existing literature. There are lots of limits to the nature and sample of my work, so I’m sharing these things only for interest – rather than making any claims about What It All Means more widely!

Overall, the study shows that teaching and learning cultures tend to be dominated by purpose: and the extrinsic motivations of OFSTED judgement and exam outcomes are uppermost in the factors which create the culture of a school. Exploring the responses by differentiating categories based on this data enables an insight into how research, wider factors and the cultures vary in response to different contextual needs. The implementation of these methods is key to how positively staff regard their culture: and an investigation into different types of school cultures shows further insight into the role of senior leadership, and structural mechanisms to build confidence and clarity of approach to research, teaching and learning, and unite around intrinsic purpose for their school. Further research is recommended into the implementation of the broad trends identified here, as it has potential to be useful for those looking to develop their teaching and learning culture, or their use of research informed practice alike.

In this post, I want to have a look at what I’ve found in the literature about research, and how & why schools might choose to use it.

What might motivate the adoption of research in schools?

Although academic research into philosophies and the nature of education have been long-established, the idea that teaching should be or become an evidence-based profession has only gradually become the consensus in a number of countries (Biesta, 2007). In the UK context, the Tooley Report was commissioned by OFSTED. It called for a transformation of educational research at academic and university level, so that educational practice could be transformed into an evidence-based practice. However, the structural practice of creating this evidence informed profession was not immediately implemented across the board. It took the appointment of a new UK Government to accept Goldacre (2013)’s influential argument for the incorporation of ‘evidence in education’ to align with the randomised control test methodology from medicine. Implementation mechanisms were required to disseminate the ideas from the research to practice.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was founded in 2011 by a lead charity, The Sutton Trust, with a £125m grant from the Department for Education (Edovald and Nevill, 2020). In March 2013, the EEF and the Sutton Trust were jointly designated by the Government as the ‘What Works Centre (WWC) for Education’. This was one example of the new Government’s approach to policy implementation, based on the ‘what works’ movement from the USA.  It is founded on the principles of impact evaluations, randomised controlled trials, and the increased production of systematic reviews over the last 10 years (Edovald & Nevil, 2020). Within a short timescale, changes to initial teacher education have reinforced this message (Bennett, 2017) and made it clear that leaders should be critically involved (Greany, 2018; Greany and Brown, 2017) in supporting teacher autonomy through professional development (Lynch, 2016; Worth and van den Brande, 2020). These large-scale structural approaches have created a wider extrinsic contextual motivation, where policy and implementation take a particular ideological and philosophical approach to teacher design.

First, the publication of the Teaching White Paper in 2010 by the Department for Education set out a new set of approaches which would build on the interventions which provided the impetus for improvement in the highly successful London Challenge. The analysis highlighted the potential influence of the Teaching School concept (Kennedy, 1991) on improvement in schools (Department for Education, 2010). Schools worked with local authorities and Universities, including the SUPER project with Cambridge University,  partnerships with the Institute of Education through the Research Learning Communities; and the RISE Programme within the Research Schools Network (Burn et al., 2020). Similarly driven by the requirement of the Research Excellence Framework to account for their “impact”, Universities had been keen to work widely with school environments (Bernhard et al., 2020; Burn et al., 2020; Weston and Clay, 2018). Becoming a ‘teaching school’ was a way to maximise income for schools at a time when budgets were thin, and this extrinsic driver saw the creation of a large number of research or teaching hubs, many of whom also ran their own internal teacher training programmes (Burn et al., 2020).

Second, following the creation of Multi-Academy Trusts, Greany et al. (2018) highlights the role of wider collaboration in building teacher quality. It became important, and valuable, to work together and align in approach. A range of Teaching School Alliances have developed since 2011. They are designated and funded further by Government, and are led by between one and three higher performing schools. By 2017, there were more than 800 Teaching Schools designated nationally, but with significant variation between them. Gu et al. (2015)’s evaluation highlights the range of organisational forms apparent across different teaching schools: showing significant variance in their voluntary status, regional disparities and their demographic context. The approach has been criticised for overly focusing on secondary schools, and schools in deprived areas (Finch et al., 2016; Gu et al., 2015), but I think that this is likely to be an extension of the “London Challenge philosophy”, or a reflection of the types of provider nd funding that are required. With the outsourcing of many of the functions of these original projects now in the hands of tutoring companies or charitable enterprises, the original motivation to adopt research as a lever to release more schools funding is perhaps less significant than before, but it is nonetheless a powerful extrinsic motivator for schools in recent memory.

The philosophical and ideological ripples have resonated through the Department for Education out towards regulatory inspectors OFSTED, who have recently produced a series of Subject Research Reviews. This creates a third extrinsic motivator: the adoption of a ‘research culture’ to satisfy the inspectors. In an insightful study on this theme, Bernhard et al. (2020) qualitatively explored the attitudes of headteachers of highly effective schools in London and the opportunity areas. They found that Heads consistently describe their institutions as “professional learning communities” (Bernhard et al., 2020). However, Bernhard et al. (2020) suggested that Heads identified the central focus of CPD as being on improving student engagement with “teaching and learning”, spreading the idea of collective responsibility for students’ learning and not admitting excuses. Their study suggests that research engagement is associated with the“highly effective schools”, while the headteachers that specialised in school turn-around did not use research to underpin their decisions. Bernhard et al. suggested this could be linked to the centralised policy of a Trust; or simply recognising that research engagement is a secondary priority to the core mission of “turning around a failing school” (Bernhard et al., 2020: 6) and focusing on examination results, or other measures of student outcome.

This apparent dichotomy between a research informed practice, and a focus on outcomes is explored by Malin et al. (2020), who review the use of evidence in a number of international contexts. They argue that the higher accountability context of the UK system creates a structural requirement to engage in research informed education: putting the responsibility to learn and improve on the schools and create quasi-market pressures balanced with regulation and control via OFSTED (Godfrey, 2016). It is argued that:

“this framework focuses the minds of – and places pressure on – school leaders to concentrate on specific forms of school improvement and research”

(Malin et al., 2020: 6).

Instead of being open to judgement externally, a school leader can adopt a deliberate process of researching and enquiring. This means not only the potential for Research School funding, but also a school can create its own criteria by which to judge success. It might be argued that schools compensate for the pressures of external accountability by becoming more ‘internally accountable’. Seen in this way, the drive to become a research engaged school is highly empowering not only to school leaders but staff, students, parents and other stakeholders (Godfrey, 2016; Malin et al., 2020).

This extrinsic motivation is critically important to understand at the heart of my second and third research questions: do school cultures adopt and implement educational research as a highly effective lever to improve student results, respond to external judgements and inspections, or as a psychological “best bets” defence mechanism against those extrinsic factors?

However, there is an increasing appetite for research informed practice from teachers themselves (Stefanini and Griffiths, 2020). There are three potential reasons why teachers might want to drive their own professional growth through the adoption of research-influenced practice. In part, this could be just a personal trait, but it also shows how teachers are finding a sense of professional value and satisfaction in their ability to have agency about some aspect of their work. As a school, therefore, the intrinsic motivation around adopting research-informed practice may be deeply connected to the wellbeing and retention of staff. Worth & Van Den Brande (2020) produced an analysis of the conditions of teachers in the UK context. They report that 38 per cent of teachers say that they have ‘a little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals, echoing wider concerns about their influence over other structures of their professional life:

Teachers also report relatively low autonomy over assessment and feedback, pupil data collection and curriculum content in their phase or subject. Teachers report relatively high autonomy in areas associated with classroom management and practice, such as classroom layout, teaching methods, planning and preparing lessons, use of classroom time and rules for behaviour.

(Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020)

The size of the autonomy gap between teachers and other professionals is a long-standing one, and is often linked to the size of school and the potential for them to be part of a Multi Academy Trust (Finch et al., 2016; Greany, 2018).

Together with autonomy, workload is consistently the most-cited reason ex-teachers give for why they left the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; Howard, 2020). Workload is often conceptualised simply as the number of hours teachers work, but “it is also about teachers feeling in control of their work” (DfE, 2019). Research by Sims (2017) found a relationship between the extent to which a teacher regards their workload as manageable and job satisfaction, but no relationship between working hours and job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is an important factor associated with teachers’ intentions and decisions to stay in the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; Worth et al., 2018). In direct contrast to the work of Kraft & Papay (2014), and Hobbiss et al (2020), it seems that while effectiveness may plateau, teachers who stay in the classroom after their first five years do not experience increased autonomy as their careers progress (Kraft & Papay, 2016). Howard (2020) shows that teachers perceived influence over their professional development (even if only moving from ‘some influence’ to ‘a lot of influence’) is associated with a nine‑percentage‑point increase in intention to stay in teaching. Lynch et al. (2016)’s NFER Analysis of Teacher retention found no evidence of any influence of a school’s proportion of free school meal pupils, academy status, or region on intent to leave the profession: but that there is a strong interaction between teacher engagement and retention, with 90% of engaged teachers intending to stay. As an intrinsic motivator (for a school culture), there is a significant opportunity to be embraced by a thoughtful leader (Strickland, 2020;  Tomsett & Uttley, 2020). Effective and well-targeted professional development cultures are likely to be associated with a positive work culture, which will lead to higher job satisfaction, and retention of quality teachers (Howard, 2020). 

If research can offer this, as part of a wider school culture, then it seems to be a high intrinsic motivation factor for adopting it. However, while there exists a wide range of studies in to the wellbeing and attitude of the profession in general, the interplay between the use of research, and attitudes and cultures does not appear to have been explored in depth at the time of writing.

3 thoughts on “MA Investigations: Why might schools use research?

  1. Pingback: MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Extrinsic Motivators |

  2. Pingback: MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Intrinsic Motivators |

  3. Pingback: MA Investigations: What conclusions can we draw? |

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