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To be transformed by research-informed practices, schools must have the right leaders

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 February 2021

Qing Gu  and Simon Rea.

What does it take to transform practice, culture and outcomes in the schools that need it most? Our evaluation of the Education Endowment Foundation’s Research Schools Network shows that the essential ingredient is committed and strong leadership.

This national network was launched in September 2016, and the research schools (RS) are funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to share what they know about putting research into practice, and lead and support schools in their regions and beyond to make better use of evidence to improve teaching practices.

These schools’ primary purpose is not to conduct academic research in classrooms or schools. Rather, they help schools to access, understand, critique, and apply external evidence in their own contexts through disseminating newsletters, blogs and other materials. They also provide CPD and training in their areas. In essence, RSs are brokers between the EEF’s evidence and school practice.

Our evaluation report on the experiences of the first five RSs in their initial three years provides clear and unambiguous evidence that these schools were seen by many participating teachers and leaders as playing a vital role in a systemic shift towards evidence use. Participation in RSs’ activities, and their high quality CPD and training especially, had contributed to the take-up of evidence-based practices in many schools.Through the network, the EEF seeks to broaden and deepen evidence-informed practices and cultures in schools and maximise the impact on practice of their guidance reports. However, evidence also shows clearly that promoting and translating EEF’s evidence into practice in schools at scale is unlikely to be achieved by the RSN on its own. The research schools’ high quality CPD provision alone is insufficient in bringing about the intended change in practice in schools – of different types, in different contexts, with different needs, and especially disadvantaged and hard-to-reach schools.

Why leadership matters

The significance of a crucial factor that is often overlooked or insufficiently addressed in scaling up efforts is the quality of school leadership. Our evaluation found that the absence of senior leadership buy-in and support was likely to result in little or no changein behaviour or culture in participating schools. The reasons are at least twofold.

First, enacting evidence-informed practices in a classroom requires change in teacher attitude, beliefs and behaviour. To achieve this across a school requires deep culture change; and effective and high impact school leadership is the architect of such change.

Second, when the access to evidence, training and development provided by the RS was perceived to be aligned with schools’ own improvement priorities, then effective and sustained take-up was more likely. Schools that can are led by leaders who know how to use new initiatives as opportunities to enhance organisational learning in ways that ensure they build collective capacity, facilitate the improvement needs of the school, and are fit for purpose.

This evidence adds weight to the idea – which we observed first-hand – that the success of Research Schools’ work and support is built on two pillars:

  • the skills, knowledge, and expertise of the RS and the quality and accessibility of the EEF materials; and
  • the senior leadership capability in the recipient school to diagnose whether there is a good and timely fit between the improvement priorities and the RS provision and to judge how they champion and drive the work forward accordingly.

Transforming the practice, culture and outcomes of disadvantaged and vulnerable schools should be a priority; but these schools tend to struggle with weak and ineffective school leadership. We have witnessed good schools led by strong leaders, who are skilled at using external funds and resources to grow their staff, keep getting better.

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that we found ‘good’ and better schools and higher performing secondary schools tended to be overrepresented amongst the subscribers to the five Research Schools’ monthly newsletters. The newsletters act as a communication gateway to sharing useful resources for schools, as well as informing schools to develop innovative ways of improving teaching and learning.

The primary outcome of the RS work so far has not been improvement in pupil outcomes. Rather, it has been about the development of a critical mass of professional expertise in schools (and groups of schools) that not only understands what works, but more importantly, knows how to make what works elsewhere work in their own contexts, and how to capture the evidence of impact on why it has worked ‘here’.

A ‘good’ research-informed innovation can rarely travel into the day-to-day realities of classrooms on its own merits without school leadership that can help teachers discover the right direction.


Image: Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education

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