Teachers and school leaders work hard every day to ensure that their pupils achieve their best, but their time and capacity is finite. For the past 5 years, the Research School Network (RSN) has worked to bridge the gap and to bring lessons from the research to the fore so that teachers use it to complement and enhance their professional expertise.
Our commitment at the EEF to being evidence-led means we have always been keen to evaluate and learn from the successes and challenges of disseminating evidence through the RSN.
Late last year, we published a report which provided insights into the initial three years of this initiative, when the network was comprised of the first five Research Schools. Today, the EEF has published a second independent evaluation report relating to the Research School Network’s activity.
This latest report focuses on the Research Schools which were established to support the DfE’s introduction of Opportunity Areas (OAs). Their main objective was to support schools to engage with evidence, through providing training and increasingly more intensive wrap-around support. Whilst they initially prioritised their efforts within the Opportunity Areas, the aim was to widen this net overtime, offering support to a wider group of schools.
We set out to evaluate whether there was any evidence of promise; whether RSN training and communication events happened as intended; and, whether this approach was sustainable and scalable. They aimed to draw out lessons about how RSN activity interacted with schools and how different contexts and conditions appeared to affect its success.
Taken together, the two reports offer rich insights into the practical reality of helping evidence improve practice in schools:
1. Research Schools have been successful in reaching the right schools, but this remains challenging.
The findings from these evaluations do suggest that the RSN has been able to reach a range of schools, and there are some self-reported signs of change in using evidence to inform decision-making. However, both reports highlight that reaching the schools with need for support is not easy. Where the Research Schools were more established, and there was co-ordination with the local system (such as within the Opportunity Areas), they were more successful in targeting and engaging schools serving more disadvantaged pupils.
2. Securing buy-in from schools’ senior leadership team is key.
This second lesson was clear: “The absence of senior leadership buy-in and support was likely to result in little or no change”.
This is unlikely to be a surprise for those working in the school system. Still, it’s telling how strongly leadership capacity features across both of the reports. It appears to determine the likelihood of engaging and the appetite for using evidence to support improvement in the first place. Additionally, it influences whether they would go on to implement actual evidence-informed changes in their setting.
3. Relevance matters.
Communication and training around evidence needs to reflect and respond to the actual priorities of schools in order to be useful, and used. Rigour and robustness of the evidence is not enough. Statements from the report capture this neatly:
“[where] RS provision was perceived to be aligned with schools’ improvement priorities, then effective and sustained take-up was more likely.”
“adapting … guidance reports and programmes into tailored local offers informed by detailed local knowledge was reported to be important and necessary…”
4. The importance of local system alignment.
Research Schools work in a complex support system. Sustainable change only appears possible through the engagement and coordination of local capacity, local partners and local leadership. Navigating and brokering the necessary relationships and webs of school-improvement organisations is demanding, time consuming and necessary. Failure to align and co-ordinate strategic planning at the local system level reduces the likelihood of effecting change.
So how have we responded to these lessons?
Firstly, we have prioritised providing more support to complement the work of Research Schools. We are placing greater emphasis on engaging schools which serve disadvantaged pupils. This includes brokering location-based partnerships to help build local capacity, shift local culture and ethos, and tailor support to help achieve local school improvement goals.
We have also taken on a team of content specialists, part-time seconded practitioners, to ensure the relevance and actionability of our work.
It is difficult to overstate how much we’ve learnt, and continue to learn, from our partnership with Research Schools. But as this exciting initiative unfolds, we will continue to monitor its effectiveness and adapt our approach to ensure that it continues to offer meaningful support for schools and their pupils who need it most.
Bridging the gap between evidence and practice is challenging, but it is an achievable and worthwhile aim.
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