Path finders shift focus to classroom

Universities are to be encouraged by the Teacher Training Agency to set up research consortia with LEAs and schools. David Budge reports on the fruits of teachers' investigations the agency has already sponsored

The Teacher Training Agency is intensifying its efforts to shift the education research world's centre of gravity from the university to the school.

In the week in which it provided The TES with the first findings of last autumn's teacher-research projects (see right), the agency began consultations over another ground-breaking scheme that will encourage higher education institutions to set up research consortia with local education authorities and schools.

It has also announced that it is to spend Pounds 12,000 publicising the findings of 30 of the best research-based Masters' dissertations that teachers produced last year. And in the summer it will launch a second round of teacher-research projects.

The TTA's long-term aim is to turn teaching into a research-based profession akin to medicine.

But with a research budget of only Pounds 500,000 - just under 1 per cent of the national total - it recognises that there is limited scope for manoeuvre. High-profile, but low-budget, research projects are its stock in trade.

The 33 TTA-funded teacher-researchers who undertook projects in the autumn received less than Pounds 2,000 each. The consortia initiative is not richly-funded either, although the three that are selected in July could each receive Pounds 90,000 over three years, provided they can produce Pounds 180,000 of matching funding.

Nevertheless, TTA officials are clearly pleased with the initial returns on their modest investment in teacher research. Philippa Cordingley, the agency's chief professional adviser on research, said: "We recognised we were asking for a lot in setting this timescale (the teachers had to complete their research and write the first draft of their report within a single term). Most projects had, however, been thought through and developed before we advertised the scheme. And a high proportion of the teachers had a Master's or PhD. They are research-sophisticated people."

Even so, Ms Cordingley accepts that the time constraints and relative inexperience of some researchers did create problems. "Some found the methodology too unwieldy. Three or four got into trouble, but we're going to make sure that the next round of teacher-researchers benefits from the experiences of the first group."

It would, however, be misleading to portray the first batch of teacher-researchers as lone pathfinders. They received considerable help from university-based academics, particularly with their literature searches and data analysis.

That is why the consortia plan is seen as a natural extension of the teacher-research work. The TTA envisages that the consortia will include between five and 20 schools, an organisation offering specialist research skills and another body that would be able to disseminate the researchers' findings.

The agency anticipates that a higher education institution would provide the research expertise while an LEA would be best placed to publicise research. But it is keeping its options open and has said that the technical advice could be provided by an LEA, or even the research and development unit of a large company that has taken a strong interest in its local education service.

It is that sort of heretical thinking that alarms some university researchers. The collection of potentially sensitive information about individual teachers' classroom performance over several years - an essential aspect of a consortium's work - will also be seen as a cause for concern. There will be fears that such information could be used for staff appraisal purposes or even to allocate performance-related pay. Philippa Cordingley is, however, confident that the necessary safeguards can be provided. "The key thing will always be to create really good ground rules. Contractual guarantees will be needed. "

As far as the TTA is concerned, other problems, such as the largely haphazard dissemination channels for research findings, will be harder to remedy. Philippa Cordingley readily accepts that some leading researchers, for example Jean Rudduck, of Homerton College, Cambridge, and funding bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council, have done their best to publicise research findings.

But the agency feels that too many 5,000-word research reports sink without trace after appearing in academic journals that have a tiny, non-teacher readership. It has therefore asked the teacher-researchers to produce four-page, jargon-free digests of their work. "The truth is that different types of research need different types of dissemination," Ms Cordingley said. "Research results don't always need to be published in report form. We also need to use videos and CD-Roms. Human contact is valuable, too. And if the person doing the reporting is a teacher it carries special weight with other teachers. They know it can't be airy-fairy research if teachers have done it themselves."

The TTA believes that more research projects should focus on ways of improving the quality of teaching. Its priorities are: * developing the leadership and management role of the head of department in secondary schools and the subject co-ordinator in primary schools in relation to monitoring and improving teaching; * increasing specialist teaching in the primary phase; * increasing key stage 2 teachers' subject knowledge, particularly in literacy, mathematics, science, and design and technology; * effective teaching for early-years children; * effective teaching of 14 to 19 year-olds; * the use of information technology to improve pupils' achievement; * increasing the effectiveness of special educational needs co-ordinators.

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