R&D in Schools – A Sad Story

Following a visit to the National College to take part in an R&D board discussion,  I have paused to reflect not only on the research taking place in the schools in our alliance but on the attitudes and approaches evident in the work we have done.

The purpose of the board meeting was to discuss possible interventions to be trialled as part of the Closing the Gap project.  Because of the tight timescale, the over-riding criteria seemed to be manageability and this meant that a range of well established interventions, some of them commercial, were being considered.  The aim was to create a short list of six interventions which schools involved in the project would be able to choose from in order to take part, testing their effectiveness over a year.  This is all well and good but the criteria we were using led us to favour all encompassing and well established ideas such as Research Lesson Study or commercial applications such as Lexia or Numicon.  Since many schools are using these already, there is nothing innovative here.  The research project will be valuable in that it ‘tests’ a range of interventions and is thus able to recommend them to schools thereafter, but it won’t generate any new ideas.

I innocently assumed that the project would be very different.  I thought that the aim was to encourage schools to come up with good ideas for closing the gap and be provided with the finance and the academic support to try them out and to test them rigorously.  There would certainly be a range of ideas which would prove not to work but there would also be some strikingly original ideas which could prove incredibly useful to the wider education community.

What gave me cause to reflect, however, was the underlying assumption that schools wouldn’t be able to come up with ideas worth testing given the timescale.  This may be true in some schools but I am sure that there are a lot of schools where ideas are being tried out – however small scale – which could prove to be incredibly effective.  As a headteacher sitting in a room full of researchers and academics, it felt as if the teaching profession was regarded as a fairly unimaginative and lumpen community which would have to be helped through this tricky research business and offered projects that had already been thought out.  There was also the depressing assumption that schools wouldn’t have the time to commit themselves to this kind of activity.

This made me think about the work we have been doing with our trios and the increasing focus we now have on research as a key strand of our CPD and our school Learning Plan.  The trio project has demonstrated the enthusiasm staff have for exploring their own practice and for reflecting on their learning.  One of the academics from Durham pointed out to me at one stage that ‘all schools aren’t like yours’ and I accept that – up to a point; there are a lot that aren’t but there are also lots of schools thinking and working along the same lines.

It is gratifying to think that the work we are doing across the alliance is to some extent cutting edge, and that we are ahead of the game in many ways in moving towards research based reflection, but it is disappointing to think that the NCTL is developing its thinking in line with what will work in schools and not what could work.

Instead of imaginative ideas filtering up from the grass roots, schools will be encouraged to test out established ideas or commercial packages. This is much more manageable but a far cry from the creative profession I thought I was a member of.  Though everyone at NCTL would deny it, it is surely another indication of the creeping privatisation of the profession favoured by  Gove, for whom commercial providers and private companies are the gold standard. The notion that teachers  – the people responsible for closing the gap – might have some insight into how best to do it is abandoned in favour of commercial acumen and workaday practicability.

What a missed opportunity.