Research Champions

The Ashford Teaching Alliance (ATA) Research Champion project (‘the programme’) was a pilot intervention aimed at developing teaching expertise and practice by promoting the use of educational research in decision-making and teacher practice. The programme ran for one academic year (2014/2015) in five schools within the ATA. Delivery was led by a ‘Research Champion’, a senior teacher based at one of the schools who worked with research leads, other teachers, and senior leaders to promote engagement with research evidence. The programme had four key components: ‘audits’ of needs and research interests for individual schools; a series of research symposia for teachers; termly research and development ‘twilight forums’ (events held at the end of the school day at one of the participating schools); and bespoke research brokerage.

The principal objective of this pilot study was to explore whether, and to what extent, research communication and engagement strategies had the potential to improve teachers’ use of, and attitudes towards, academic research to support pupils’ progress. The project was funded through the EEF Research Use in Schools grants round which supported studies to test ways of increasing the impact of educational research in schools. It was jointly funded by the EEF, the Department for Education and the Mayor’s London Schools Excellence Fund.

Key Conclusions

The following conclusions summarise the project outcome

  1. There was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes towards research, or their use of research evidence in teaching practice, changed during the intervention.

  2. Teachers found the research symposia and twilight events valuable, particularly as opportunities to learn about developments in educational research and reflect on teaching practice outside the classroom.

  3. Attendance and engagement in the programme was occasionally low due to time pressures faced by teachers. This posed a serious threat to the feasibility of the programme.

  4. A greater commitment from senior leadership teams to fully support staff with release time and classroom cover is likely to be necessary for successful implementation.

  5. The programme requires further development before it is ready for a trial. In particular it requires a clearer specification of the key features of the programme in terms of structure (activities and outputs), content (topics covered at the training events), and which components are required, and better information for schools on how much commitment is needed from teachers.

What is the impact?

The programme largely ran as intended and was generally positively perceived by participating teachers. Those who attended the ‘twilight sessions’ and symposia found them valuable. However, while the structure of the programme and its outputs were as planned, levels of teacher engagement varied. Overall, therefore, the evidence on the programme’s feasibility was mixed.

The evaluation helped to highlight some of the practical barriers to engagement with, and implementation of, educational research. One of the main barriers was a lack of time to fully engage in the programme, which was related to competing priorities in schools and varying levels of buy-in from senior leadership teams. The findings suggest that systematic implementation of research evidence would require sustained engagement of senior leaders, through an enhanced process of mentoring and support.

We believe that the Ashford Teaching Alliance Research Champion model is not currently ready to be evaluated in a trial. The programme requires a clearer specification of the key features of the programme in terms of structure (activities and outputs), content (topics covered at the training events), and which components are required, and better information for schools on how much commitment is needed from teachers.

The process evaluation identified some key learning points for developing the model. Developers should:

  1. explore ways to ensure participating staff are given regular, dedicated time for the programme—in particular, release time to attend all events and to engage with the brokerage service, and time to plan, implement, and review changes in classroom practice;
  2. foster support from senior leaders at the school—encouraging buy-in from senior leadership teams would lead to more support for staff, including release time and classroom cover, as well as greater likelihood that learning from the project would be shared and taken forward across the whole school;
  3. allow flexibility for schools to tailor strategies to their own context—this was viewed as key to promoting engagement and buy-in from teachers and senior leadership teams; and
  4. provide practical examples and materials that could be used to facilitate classroom implementation, with a focus on simple strategies expected to bring ‘quick gains’.
QuestionFindingComment
Is there evidence of promise?NoThere was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes towards research, or their use of research evidence in teaching practice, changed during the intervention.
Was the approach feasible?MixedThe programme ran largely as intended in terms of activities and outputs, but teacher engagement and attendance at events was lower than expected. There were mixed views on the usefulness of some elements of the programme.
Is the approach ready to be evaluated in a trial?NoThe programme needs to be developed further before being evaluated in a full trial.

How secure is the finding?

This was a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) study with several iterative components. A model describing how the intervention would work in practice was drafted by NatCen researchers in consultation with the Research Champion following a workshop to identify the resources, activities, outputs, and intended outcomes of the programme.

Teachers at the participating schools were surveyed at the beginning and end of the academic year. Quantitative data on teacher attitudes and behaviours was collected and analysed to identify any changes.

The process evaluation was based on depth interviews, observations of training events, and the outcomes survey. Interviews and observations took place throughout the academic year in order to capture experiences and views of participants as the intervention progressed. All schools took part in some process evaluation activities. Findings were shared with the delivery team as they became available to provide formative feedback and facilitate ongoing development of the intervention.

How much does it cost?

The cost of the intervention was estimated at £56,310, which includes up-front costs (£15,845) and running costs in the first year (£40,465). The cost per pupil was estimated at £27.13, based on 2,075 pupils in total across the five participating schools in its first year.

The cost per pupil was relatively low and is estimated to decrease in the programme’s subsequent years, with the estimate for the programme’s third year being £16.80 per pupil per year.