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Essex teachers do away with the white coats

Forget the jokes. Staff here believe their studies of classroom activities make a real difference to schools. David Newnham reports

When you talk about such concepts as school-based teacher research, it's easy to get bogged down in semantics. Does research suggest something grander than the process of refinement that has always gone on in the classroom? Is it an academic activity that is best left to higher education institutions?

At this point in the debate, you would do well to climb into your car and head for the wooded by-roads of north-west Essex. Not just because the clear air on these chalky uplands helps to sharpen the brain, but because here, in a consortium of six primary schools known as the Think First Cluster, school-based teacher research has become a fact of everyday life.

Three years ago, one of these schools, Chrishall Holy Trinity amp; St Nicholas primary in Royston, acquired several computers. So they squeezed an ICT suite into a corridor and waited for the benefits to accrue. But what were the benefits exactly? Were the computers really making an impact on learning? And was the school using them effectively?

Rather than simply hoping for the best, the staff, led by the headteacher, Lella Yates, decided to find out. They contacted Cambridge University's faculty of education and, together with Dr Colin Connor, they devised a research project that would give them answers and show them the way forward.

Carefully conducted interviews soon revealed that younger children assumed - quite wrongly - that seniors had more time in the suite, while key stage 2 classes felt, with some justification, that the ICT co-ordinator's class was getting too much of the action. Ensuring that all pupils had equal access quickly brought improved results.

While Mrs Yates and her staff were refining their use of the ICT suite, Catherine Bonich, head of nearby Clavering primary school, was investigating a recent dip in writing skills. To everyone's surprise, it was shown that younger boys needed extra encouragement, while older children had been floundering under the volume of spelling tests.

It is the rigour with which Chrishall and Clavering undertook these investigations, together with the fact that their findings were subsequently pooled and shared with other schools in the cluster, that set these projects apart from the sort of thing that teachers have always done to improve their effectiveness, says Graham Handscomb.

As head of best practice and research at Essex education authority, Mr Handscomb has been instrumental in setting up Flare, the Forum for Learning and Research. Now in its third year, Flare aims to foster a culture of research practice in Essex, and to encourage teachers to regard such activities as part of their continuing professional development.

Flare is composed mainly of practising teachers and heads - Mrs Yates among them - together with senior colleagues from higher education and the local education authority. And one of the first issues it tackled was that troublesome definition of research.

"There is still a notion of ivory towers and people in white coats," says Mr Handscomb. "In the end, we decided that research is just what good teachers have always done in the classroom, but made systematic and made public."

Collaboration and inquiry have long had a high priority in Essex. In the 1990s, the local education authority got together with Cambridge University to undertake the Essex Primary School Improvement Initiative (Epsi). "That experience led us to believe that school and teacher engagement in research is not just a peripheral luxury," says Mr Handscomb.

It was partly the success of Epsi, and a resulting pat on the back from the Office for Standards in Education, that encouraged Essex to make research a priority. It made a principal adviser, Mr Handscomb, responsible for its management, and then set about building research into all strategic planning.

"Every school in the county should now be self-evaluating," says Mr Handscomb. "But now we want to build on the gains of being self-evaluating schools and move them into being self-researching schools."

Just what it means to be a self-researching school has itself become the subject of a formal investigation, managed by the National Foundation for Educational Research at the instigation of Flare (see panel, right).

Research projects from around the country feature in the investigation, one of which is happening at Sandon school, a comprehensive just a few miles from Chelmsford, the Essex county town.

There, the deputy head, John Branfield, has a long-standing interest in research, having been involved in the Schools History Project in the 1970s.

As a member of Flare and co-ordinator of several research projects at Sandon, he was the obvious person to get things moving. "We've got a Year 7 cohort who are on a fast track programme," he explains, "and we decided we wanted to look very closely at how this was working - not just sit back and monitor it as you might something else in the school, but to do a more rigorous and, dare I say, academic piece of research."

At a staff meeting, Mr Branfield asked if anyone would be interested in lending a hand, and by the next morning he had a research team of eight - a "really quite dynamic group" that included one of the school's leading learning support assistants.

With findings already starting to emerge, Mr Branfield is quite clear about the benefits for pupils. "It will result in teaching that is more sensitive to their needs and which has more diversity and cunning," he says. "If you are going to teach people to be more flexible and more ingenious, then your teaching has to be more ingenious, in order to get that subliminal message across."

Less obvious, perhaps, is how involvement might benefit the researchers.

"One fairly cynical, instrumental view, but one that I believe is fairly realistic, is that it goes on your CV, it goes in your reference, and it might get you a better job," says Mr Branfield. "But I think there's another very important bottom line which says: 'I've been doing this job for a while. I think I've got an expertise which I would like to share or extend. I want a bit more fulfilment and I'd like to use some of this to maybe gain another qualification'."

For staff in the Think First cluster schools, getting involved in research has had tangible benefits in terms of professional development. Indeed, continuing professional development was one of the reasons that the cluster was set up in the first place. Any member of staff at the six schools who undertakes individual training is encouraged to share what they have learned with their colleagues.

At the same time, the schools take part in linked research projects on a three-yearly rolling basis, and the information obtained is disseminated throughout the cluster. Cambridge University not only helps to plan and provide a critique of these projects, it also equips those taking part with the requisite research skills. Participants are awarded a certificate of further professional study - the first step towards a masters degree.

In the case of both the ICT project at Chrishall and the writing study at Clavering, the research provided unexpected insights. At Clavering, it had been assumed that key stage 1 children lacked motor skills while key stage 2 pupils had difficulties with organisation. So, by revealing the particular problem with boys and the confusion caused by spelling tests, the inquiry enabled staff to rethink their teaching methods.

The school benefited in other ways too, says Catherine Bonich. "It was fascinating to see the impact on the children because they saw that the teachers were also learning alongside them. They gave us a huge clap in assembly when we got our certificates."

With the sound of applause still ringing in their ears, staff at the Think First schools are now planning their next collaborative project.

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