Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Taking a closer look at research


Research is a powerful tool for illuminating our work, says Christine Tyler. But don't leave it all to the think tanks. Studying the practices in your own school or college and sharing findings across the system will inject new energy into your leadership. 

If, like me, you sometimes listen to Terry Wogan on the way to work in the morning, you will be aware of his frequent amazement at news items that begin: "Research demonstrates..." Often, the conclusions of the research quoted appear unrealistic or obvious and of very little value to the average TOG (that's Terry's Old Geezers/Gals).

But look around at the recent crop of education studies and there are plenty of research projects which are highly relevant to our professional practice - recently, the 14-19 reforms in particular.

For example, many ASCL members are currently grappling with 14-19 curriculum changes.

A quick glance at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) website reveals some interesting work on the impact of 14-16 year-olds on further education colleges, examining how colleges and post-16 learners are coping.

The research will contribute to developing new strategies to deal with 14-16 year olds in FE and to improving the experience for them - and for you.

The Nuffield Foundation is focusing its research on four strands, of which one is 14-19 education. These studies consider rates of return for effort expended on teaching 14-19 year olds; an enquiry into the nature and role of applied science in the 14-19 curriculum; and a report from higher education focus groups that highlights the need for schools, FE and HE to relate their work consciously to that of other sectors - for the sake of the students.

From the Institute of Education (IoE) at the University of London comes 'A seismic shift? Policy perspectives on the changing learning and skills landscape.' It looks closely at the current policy agenda and what it is attempting to achieve, and challenges government policy assumptions, including the still divided 14-19 qualifications structure.

It finds, among other things, that current policies which emphasise a market-led approach to provision have rendered the learning and skills landscape more uncertain and more contested, particularly for FE colleges.

Similar challenges from the IoE have affected policy in the past and may well do so in future.

Practitioner networks

You may feel that such policy-related research has little connection with what we as practitioners are able to contribute to managing curriculum change. But the Institute of Education has recently established a centre for 14+ innovation and reform, designed to work specifically with local practitioner networks across the country and to provide opportunities for them to develop through focused research.

The Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) supports the quality of teaching across all 14-19 providers. Its new journal, Quality Improvement, has a substantial section on evidence and research. Brief reports include research into the value of learning style models, thinking skills and group discussion.

In addition, work on the evaluation of the 14-19 pathfinders, positive progression to employment through E2E (entry to employment) and assessment processes are covered and there's a description of some useful work on improving the understanding of maths for vocational students.

Robert Hill's research for ASCL on sustainable school leadership for the 21st century proved useful for members and has been of national influence. This year, he is working with ASCL members to study the effect of partnership across sectors and the results will be published in January.

Practitioner research can energise us as professionals. For far too long, many of us have allowed higher education researchers to 'do unto us' and have ignored the fact that we are in a perfect position to research our own sector and produce information and guidance from this that will inform our practice and improve the experience of our students.

A quick look at the FE Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) website shows that many leaders are now participating and learning from research. Publications available include the nature of leadership and developing leadership practices.

Similarly, the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) publishes research based on commissioned and individual work, offering ten research associateships to school leaders each year. Recent subjects have included the role of trust in leading learning networks, the creative curriculum and the part played by middle leaders in school improvement.

Lynn Raphael Reed's interesting work on reasons for low participation in higher education by 18 and 19 year olds in a disadvantaged area of south Bristol is an excellent example of how empirical research can help us to improve our service to students. It is easily accessible through a seven-page summary that will make you want to read the whole report and act on its strong messages about current practice.

At the practitioner level, there is some related research on transitions between FE and HE from Salford University by a mixed FE/HE research team. Its findings are not rocket science - in Terry Wogan's judgement they may only tell us what we already sense. But they show conclusively that the definitions of 'independent learning' used by FE and HE teachers have little in common - to the detriment of the students who pass from one sector to the other.

By applying the lessons learned from this research, FE and HE practitioners will be able to focus their combined efforts on improving the learning experience for students who might otherwise have dropped out.

Another practitioner research project was described in a recent Leader article by Candice Satchwell. 'Literacies for learning in FE' was a three-year project that focused on students' everyday literacy practices in order to make teaching more accessible. Tangible results are now available in the form of free teacher training and CPD resources.

In ASCL we have a unique opportunity to draw on the experiences of leaders across both schools and colleges at a time of significant curriculum change - in the 14-19 sector, the Leitch skills agenda and the recurring problems of adult provision.

ASCL research network

For most leaders of schools or colleges, the idea of adding research to their list of activities may well seem daft. But there are many pleasures and advantages to be gained by taking on extra work - even when you may think you could not possibly have time to fit it in.

If you are interested in research and would like to contribute to the body of knowledge that will inform improvement in your school or college, then we may have the answer.

Many ASCL members are already seasoned researchers who have caught the bug and are happy to share their experience. Many members are also studying for higher degrees that will involve them in different types of individual research. ASCL's 13,000 members across the UK encompass a huge range of interests and experiences and access to pilot studies, groups of students studying everything from the International Baccalaureate to plumbing NVQs and all subjects between that may be harnessed to contribute knowledge on your specific interest.

At the ASCL conference in March 2008 we are offering a workshop for those members interested in starting, extending or supporting educational research and from there we aim to establish an ASCL research development group. It may be actual or virtual depending on members' requirements.

If we focus our efforts on research that will extend and support the many activities of our members, using the networks provided by ASCL to develop that research, we should be able to produce exciting outcomes that will enhance the experience of our students as well as support individual members' careers - converting research into action.

My diary has a 'thought for the week' which, in mid-September 2007, was from the 20th-century scientific thinker Jacob Bronowski: "The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation..." I agree. But I also believe that for action to be effective, prior contemplation - or research - is necessary to focus and channel it.

Energy spent on discovering why things are and how they can be improved is never wasted. It can itself generate further energy and enthusiasm, contributing still more to developing the skills of effective leadership. 

Christine Tyler is ASCL's college specialist and previously principal of Eccles College. 

Looking further

For details on some of the research and opportunities mentioned in this article, see the following websites.

ASCL Research Network

As part of the Annual Conference seminars on 7-9 March 2008, ASCL is holding an initial workshop for members interested in starting, extending or supporting educational research. This could develop into a virtual or actual research network. If you are not able to attend but would like to find out more, please email christine.tyler@ascl.org.uk For information on Annual Conference, go to www.ascl.org.uk

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