How Highly Effective Schools in England Apply Research

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Performance Research


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What do highly effective schools do to drive improvement?

This research analyses inspection outcomes and progress scores for disadvantaged pupils to determine the hallmarks of an effective school. However, are the methods used research-informed?

Published over the summer, an academic paper focused on London schools and school improvement sparked my interest. I’ve been keen to learn why schools are labelled as stuck schools or failing schools and if the methodologies used are grounded in research, or are simply political nonsense.

Executive principals and school headteachers, including our beloved politicians, would do well to read carefully the details within this paper.

Research methods

Expert interviews with headteachers in schools across London gathered perspectives on school effectiveness and improvement, school leadership and the professional development of teachers.

The interview data shows that the headteachers of the highly effective schools in London suggest that research engagement is established in the culture. This study considered the perspectives of headteachers who have demonstrated their capacity to improve outcomes, especially in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students to inform decision-making at different levels in education systems.

Controversial examples that spring to mind are, zero tolerance, banning mobile phones and breaches of uniform (exclusions) and the narrowing of the curriculum to name a few. How research-informed are these decisions?

What makes an effective school?

There is an abundance of research to suggest that attainment and progress of pupils in London is very strong, particularly for disadvantaged pupils who live in poor neighbourhoods.

It would be foolish for anyone to criticise the approaches used. However, another question to ask is what do we value most about our education system and the approaches we use?

“There has been considerable interest in determining what the decisive factors were in London” which has brought about this exceptional achievement. Baars et al (2014, p7) “identified four key school improvement interventions which provided the impetus for improvement in London.”

  1. the London Challenge
  2. Teach First
  3.  academies programme and,
  4.  improved support from local authorities.

Each requires “effective leadership at every level of the system.” All of these methods I have been part at some stage of my career and I would advocate for school improvement across English regions. However, we know culture, not the structure, is the key to unlocking a school community.

Research findings

The research uses data from schools in seven of the most deprived boroughs in London (Camden, Southwark, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Westminster) and in government-designated social mobility/opportunity areas (West Somerset, Derby. Bradford, Doncaster, Blackpool, Oldham, Norwich, Scarbrough, Ipswich, Fenland and East Cambridgeshire, Hastings and Stoke-on-Trent), plus successful academy-chain ‘turnaround schools’ in London.

From the 43 interviews,  content analysis was used to identify dominant themes emerging. Crucially, professional development and, more specifically within this context of the study, engagement with research at different levels in the school.

Classroom observations

Headteachers of highly effective schools in London are very much in line with what has been defined in educational literature as “professional learning communities.” School environments where learning is shared and teachers “act on their learning” to enhance their effectiveness as professionals for the students’ benefit.

Professional development is established and has a strong structure to support this development. The central focus of CPD is on teaching and learning, spreading the idea of “collective responsibility for students.”

A strong open classroom door policy is part of the culture with school leaders frequently carrying out learning walks. Reading through the research paper, ‘classroom observations’ are a regular occurrence.

Research engaged schools

In research engaged schools, conditions are created for headteachers, teachers and other school staff “to learn through conducting research or by using existing, published research.”

Interestingly, effective schools in difficult circumstances are strongly inspired by research. I think back to my own leadership of a school in Westminster where this was very much our approach. It’s a shame this was not picked up by highly-qualified inspectors visiting the school in the 1.5 days they spent walking around the school…

This research unpicks which dimensions of research engagement head teachers hold relevant for improving schools which decisions categorised were ‘research-based decisions’, ‘based on published research’ or ‘based on headteachers’ own research.’

In some of the schools, the process which teachers used to research a specific topic in order to inform decisions, included:

  • A problem within their area of responsibility
  • Different teaching strategies
  • School data or,
  • Research into student and staff voice.

Many teachers within the schools shared the belief that decisions to be made in the school, especially in the area of teaching and learning, had to be grounded in (published) research. Cognitive science, feedback, metacognition and self-regulation were some of the topics referred to; the Education Endowment Foundation also featured.

Conflict of interest

Topics of interest in these highly effective schools cover:

  • Cognitive science
  • Retrieval practice
  • Memory
  • Self-regulation
  • Metacognitive strategies
  • Dealing with high ability students and,
  • Differentiation and fostering growth mindset.

Interestingly, headteachers who claimed that research strongly informs decisions do not seem to engage uncritically with research findings which do not align with their own motives. One example cited, “We have used slightly smaller classes… and I have said that class size shouldn’t really matter.”

Research engagement is established in the culture of more than two-thirds of highly effective schools. However, in the schools which were labelled ‘turnaround schools’, the research highlights that the teachers and headteachers did not talk much about using research to underpin their decisions.

This is concerning.

I have written about this before. That the myths associated with ‘failing schools’ and how they appear to follow the same methodology:

  1. Leadership and objectives – appoint new leaders and narrow objectives
  2. Market perception – rebrand school and communicate change
  3. Resources – expand service offering and improve admissions
  4. Student quality – exclude poor quality students, improve admissions and acquire a local primary school
  5. Structures – centralise activities and improve facilities
  6. Process stability – improve student attendance and behaviour
  7. Process capability – improve teaching capability
  8. Systems – introduce performance development systems.

At a deeper level, it is important for us who are engaged with educational research to unpick these turnaround schools and their longevity. Research and engagement with CPD appear to be imposed from higher up the food chain E.g. CEOs within the academy trust.

Therefore, even “the headteachers themselves do not seem to need to engage so much in reading or conducting research.” The multi-academy trust is so specialised in turning around ‘failing schools’, research engagement might not be your first priority (refer back to the points listed above and select which comes first), and if it was, which evidence is used.


The perspectives of headteachers who have demonstrated their capacity to improve outcomes, especially in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, may provide practically-relevant knowledge to inform decision-making at different levels across the education system.

It appears the facts associated with ‘failing schools’ are true: they rarely engage with research. If we want a world-class education system, then we need to work out how schools can work collaboratively, rather than in competition with one another where research may be ignored for a quick fix…

Highly effective and improving schools focus strongly on developing teachers through research-based professional development and let their decisions be informed by published and self-conducted research.

You can download the paper here.

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