The Literacy Octopus: Communicating and Engaging with Research

This project will test ways of engaging schools with research evidence from four different organisations, using two separate RCTs. Each delivery partner has developed interventions of different intensity: one ‘passive’ intervention that communicates research in a way that is cheap and scalable, and one ‘active’ intervention that requires more involvement from schools but may be more effective at changing teacher behaviour and ultimately improving attainment. Each programme has a slightly different theory of change: some outline evidence-based teaching methods directly; some aim to influence school-level decisions about how to allocate funding; others encourage more peer-to-peer discussion about research findings. The activities will be aimed at Key Stage 2 teachers in primary schools, with a focus on improving literacy teaching.

780 schools will be recruited to be allocated to one of the below projects, with some receiving light-touch interventions, others participating in more active interventions. In a separate trial, over 8,000 schools will be sent materials or emails about research findings by these organisations.

The four grantees and their different communication methods are:

1. The Institute for Effective Education at University of York  will distribute printed and electronic materials that explain research findings and identify effective interventions. These include its magazine, Better: Evidence-based Education that brings together evidence on particular topics (for example, assessment, or struggling readers) and fortnightly emails, Best Evidence in Brief, summarising new research findings in accessible digests. It recently launched a new website, Evidence 4 Impact, providing a searchable database of evidence-based education programmes. Alongside this, schools in the ‘active’ arm will be invited to an evidence fair that gives schools an opportunity to discover more about interventions that can help primary school pupils with their literacy. Senior leaders from schools will attend the events, and meet proponents of evidence-based programmes to discuss how they could work in their school, and hear from other schools that have used them.

2. Campaign for Learning, in partnership with Train Visual, will give schools free access to the Teaching How2s website. This provides a large number of visual guides to evidence-based teaching techniques. These are carefully designed, step-by-step presentations that walk teachers through activities that they can use in their classroom straightaway. The focus is on helping teachers to understand how to implement evidence-based techniques, rather than understanding the theory. The hypothesis is that visual guides can accurately communicate how to deliver evidence-based teaching strategies. Schools in the active arm will also receive additional and ongoing support on how to use the How2s as part of their school improvement and teacher training plans.

3. The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, part of Durham University will send schools a handy, up-to-date, easy-to-read booklet on research-based strategies for teaching literacy in Key Stage 2. Some schools will benefit from additional support, which will vary in intensity and include a mixture of ‘twilight’ CPD sessions, observation, and pupil diagnostics. 

4. NatCen and ResearchEd will run a conference for teachers in primary schools, exploring relevant research about literacy education. Alongside the invitation to the conference, some teachers will be invited to become part of an online community offering pre- and post-conference support and activities to help them to use research findings in their own schools.

Why are we funding it?

The challenge of communicating research findings has been clearly identified in education and other areas of social policy such as public health and social care, but there are very few empirical studies looking at research dissemination and none that we are aware of that compare alternative methods of engagement as attempted in this trial. The project therefore has relevance to a wide range of organisations with an interest in evidence-informed practice. The results will also be crucial in helping to shape the EEF’s work on dissemination of its own findings. They will help us to understand the relative value of different communication and engagement methods, which will affect how we try to share the findings of our work with schools.

We are particularly interested in the cost-effectiveness of approaches, particularly the light touch ones. Even if they only have a small impact, they could still be worthwhile for schools to use at minimal cost. 

How are we evaluating it?

This evaluation is being carried out by a team from NFER, led by Dr Ben Styles. The evaluation involves two simultaneous Randomised Controlled Trials: an Active Trial to which 720 schools are openly recruited by NFER and allocated to either receive one of the “passive” interventions, one of the “active” interventions, or a control group; and a Passive Trial where a large number of primary schools across the country (potentially over 8,000) will be randomly allocated to receive one of the “passive” interventions or to a “business-as-usual” control group.

All of the communications materials will focus on Key Stage 2 Literacy to ensure, as much as possible, that the any effects detected by the trials are due to the varied effectiveness of the different approaches, not the different interventions covering different subject areas. 

Active Trial

780 schools will be recruited by NFER and allocated to receive one of the following: an “active” intervention, a “passive” intervention, or a “business-as-usual” control group. See the Project section above for descriptions of the different interventions. The attainment outcomes will be measured using KS2 literacy results in the year following the intervention (Summer 2016). Teachers in intervention and control schools will also be expected to complete a questionnaire about their awareness and use of research evidence in their schools. A process evaluation with interviews and case studies will explore the implementation of the various arms, and try to understand the mechanisms for any changes in outcome measures.

 Passive Trial

The passive approaches are so low-cost that if they had just a small positive effect on attainment, they could be cost-effective. We are therefore running a simultaneous trial, including potentially all primary schools in the country that are not in the Active Trial or are otherwise benefiting from the interventions (potentially over 8,000). They do not need to be officially recruited; grantees will simply distribute the passive materials through letters and emails.

When will the evaluation report be due?

The first evaluation report will be published in Summer 2017; with a follow-up report on subsequent KS2 outcomes in Spring 2018.