Learning to research: good for teachers, parents and children

susan young small

Becoming part of a research learning community is transforming the working lives of early years teacher Jane Flood and her colleagues. Since being chosen to be an informal lead on a teaching schools alliance project in her school federation a couple of years ago, she’s seen writing levels among summer-born children rise dramatically, an increase in parental involvement and huge enthusiasm from governors.

Teachers are adapting to evidence-informed teaching, with planning focusing on children’s learning rather than the curriculum. Jane has presented her findings at the BELMAS international educational leadership research conference, to academics and fellow practitioners. “It's not a quick fix,” says Ms Flood, who works at Copythorne CE Infant School in Southampton. “I’d done research as a young teacher. The thing that really sold it to me is that it's all based on improving things for the children and that's what people are measuring it against. It's not school data, it's not SATs results and it's not league tables. The whole research learning community model is based on that - collaborative learning between teachers and academics to improve outcomes for children.”

The project, run with the support of Dr Chris Brown of the University College London Institute of Education, started with reception teachers in Oaks CE Learning Federation schools and was led by senior teacher Jane and Matt Perrett, Head of Learning at Netley Marsh CE Infant School. Sixty per cent of summer-borns at the Oaks Federation were achieving the expected levels of writing at the end of reception, which is lower than the 2015 county average. After a year of the project, 86 per cent reached the expected level, and 82 per cent in the second.

The approach included six one-hour sessions for parents who learned to work with the teacher and their child, with “little tasks to do at home,” weekly follow-up, and lots of modelling of phonics teaching. Parents of next year’s reception classes now ask about the scheme, says Jane, adding: “Most of our summer-borns perceive they are better at writing now. I don’t know if it’s become more explicit to them or whether this has given them or their parents more confidence.”

Reception staff in the federation’s schools used their half-termly professional development meetings to plan and implement changes, creating a WhatsApp group and a research blog, and pooling educational textbooks (“the ones you buy on courses and never read”) to create a little research library.

It was a big commitment, says Jane, and communication was key. “People were happy to give that extra time because they could see the results they were getting in the classroom. It was good professional development to meet and discuss, and we took the meetings out to Costa or the garden centre, not just in our classrooms, so that was how we did it.”

Jane’s executive head Tina Daniel was so pleased with the project that she asked Dr Brown to support all the federation’s schools to become a research learning community, with every teacher considering their own enquiry-based question.

Underpinning the scheme’s continuing success was the support of Mrs Daniel and the involvement of Dr Brown, who developed the research learning community model the federation is using. “Having someone like Chris who is slightly detached from the schools and the madness we operate in is crucial. He can ask challenging questions, and you need them. Otherwise, you’ve got confirmation bias and you’re going to carry on doing what you believe without challenging yourself,” says Jane.

Other supportive factors have been including research in teachers’ performance management targets, having access to research materials (easier with Chartered College of Teaching membership), and supportive colleagues and governors.

“Colleagues sometimes say, ‘I can’t do this, it doesn’t work’ or that they’re confused. It’s all part of challenging yourself and learning. I started this earlier than most of them, but I still regularly have these epiphanies, and Chris jokes that it’s taken me two years. But you know, we’re busy people and have other things to think about.”

At the Oaks Federation, PPA time has been restructured so teachers have a day each half term to use in their research as they wish, reading, visiting other schools or doing some research. “Creativity is key”, says Jane. “It’s protected time, to use however people see fit. I've used mine to go to our other two schools to work alongside them and see what they doing with summer-borns. We have to be creative: there isn't any more time, so it's using what we've got better. The leaders have to be behind this otherwise it's just not going to work.”

'Leading a research informed approach to improving outcomes for summer born children: a study across a federation of three small infant schools in England' was presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS), which ran from 7 to 9 July 2017. BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management, and membership is free for the first year. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk.

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch