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Putting research at the heart of your school

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Lindsay Palmer and Nicola Theobald

The Mead Academy Trust has put research and development at the very core of their work. They explain why research and development was chosen as a strategic priority and how it has been embedded across the alliance.

We visited The Mead Community Primary School, an outstanding primary school in Wiltshire, to find out more about their approach. Lindsay Palmer and Nicola Theobald lead the teaching school’s approach to research and development and explained more about their methods.

A teaching school since 2011, The Mead has always viewed research and development as a priority and fundamental to developing an evidence base to support developments across the school. Lindsay explained:

We see research and development as a key driver in many ways, in terms of supporting the development of an evidence base for CPD programmes that we’re developing, so that we can be sure that things have been tried and tested and piloted with the children. That way, we have evidence that can be shared and provide a rich resource to draw on when leading CPD programmes and with leadership development.

Although The Mead Community Primary School has always followed a research based approach to school development, it had not always been done in a formalised way. The teaching school designation enabled the school to further embed evidence-based practice, and establish a culture of research engagement for all staff.

The Mead quickly realised that it would take time and perseverance to change perceptions and embed a research and development culture. They adopted a strategic approach to achieve a culture of research and development, beginning with staff development. Lindsay explained:

We wanted our staff to really understand the impact of evidence-based teaching, so it was important to get them on board with the idea of research and how that can impact on their practice. We also got them thinking about CPD very differently, thinking about the fact that research can be just as valuable as a way of developing your skills as going on a course, or going on a one-day event. The development sessions we facilitated for staff enabled them to understand the nature of research and the potential impact of this in outcomes for children. Staff were excited and motivated to engage.

Developing and embedding a culture

The initial focus on using research and development to support CPD was about changing traditional perceptions of CPD. The Mead wanted to introduce the idea of joint practice development[1], a peer-to-peer approach, as a way of moving professional development away from the traditional CPD model. Lindsay explained:

We… took it right back to basics. We spent a full day with all the teachers looking at research, at what it means, the importance of research – it was a very active day, interacting, talking about CPD, getting them reflecting on what’s made CPD effective for them over the years. All of them identified that the most effective CPD they can recall is when it was alongside others. So it led us really neatly into the joint practice development model, and then bringing research into that.

The school dedicated time for staff to develop their understanding of the purpose and benefit to their classroom practice of using research evidence. They invested heavily in training, using facilitated sessions to show how research would benefit them. Nicola explained:

Everybody working together during the INSET sessions, working with teachers and teaching assistants together to really explore the learning behaviours and dispositions of a teacher or practitioner researcher and developing a deeper understanding of that role. And alongside that, developing a deeper understanding of the teaching school model and the whole extended moral purpose that comes with that. We are researching on behalf of all children and all schools and I think that message has helped to move thinking forward.

There were undoubtedly challenges to embedding a culture of research and development, including time, movement of staff, new staff, and the shift in culture. Despite these challenges, the perseverance of the school leadership team and willingness to embrace change by the staff has led to a positive shift in culture where teachers understand the importance and benefit of engaging with research.

Staff are empowered by research groups

Learning Sets were subsequently developed across the whole staff team. These small groups undertake research using an agreed research methodology. The agreed focus for each group is linked directly with the school development plan – and now forms the basis of CPD for staff. Lindsay explained that "all the elements of research that the teachers have been working on have been linked to school priorities, and we’ve very much seen that as a way of furthering school priority work. It’s not additional, it’s not an add-on - they’re actually researching stuff that’s really important to school development."

The research approach was underpinned by a spiral methodology, which introduced a common research process, providing a cohesive approach throughout the school. Lindsay explained:

By having a common research process and developing a common language the spiral research process has provided something that has been a common tool that the teachers can use and has helped to develop a rigorous, systematic approach.

The school were keen to ensure that the research projects had timeframes clearly defined and that the research within the learning sets was used and celebrated. Lindsay explained how this was shared with staff:

They all knew that we were going to be working on an 18-month first project cycle, and they knew from the outset that we wanted case studies from them that would be published on the website. We knew very swiftly into that first cycle that there would be a big event that we now call ‘learning conferences’. We’ve had 2 of those, where at the end of each learning set cycle all of that work is shared with all staff. All staff are involved, and we have a ‘marketplace’, which consists of each set developing a stall that displays their learning and research journey. The whole school turns into a huge market with a buzz of curiosity and research engagement.

Continuous review

Once the leadership team began to see a culture shift in the staff’s approach to research and development - and the positivity and enthusiasm that was apparent across the school - they were clear that there was a need to maintain an on-going commitment from staff and school leaders. It was vital that the focus remained on the strong foundation they had built on making research integral to whole school improvement, so it was built into performance management for all staff and linked to teachers’ appraisals. Nicola explained that in doing so, it became “an entitlement for the teachers and helps to make sure there is a clear expectation that teachers are researching their thinking and their practice”.

It has taken a lot of work over 4 years to fully embed a culture of research and development. However The Mead realise they cannot afford to become complacent. They have set a framework for the future by constantly reviewing their approach to ensure they are re-invigorating their processes. They will continue to embed their learning across the alliance, and share their insights and best practice with other local schools, academies and higher education providers.

About Lindsay Palmer and Nicola Theobald

Lindsay Palmer has been Head of the Teaching School since its designation in July 2011 and has worked in Wiltshire schools and for Wiltshire Council throughout her career. Her research interests are in effective professional development and the teaching and learning of children with special educational needs.

Nicola Theobald works as an independent consultant, and has supported a variety of Research and Development projects in The Mead Teaching School. As a former Primary Headteacher and consultant, Nicola has held a number of leadership roles at LA, school and project level.


[1] Joint Practice Development Model, Professor David H Hargreaves

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