Nuisance value

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Jill Wilson is happy that the National Teacher Research Panel she chairs is ruffling a few feathers. But, she tells Biddy Passmore, teachers and academics should be partners, not distant colleagues

Jill Wilson is enthusiast-in-chief for the drive to get more teachers involved in research on education. "Research should be about teachers being in control, not something that's done to them," she says. But why should weary teachers - at Oathall community college in West Sussex where she is head, or any other school, in fact - add yet another activity to their workload? "It can be inspiring, rejuvenating," she exclaims - and points out that it simply means doing what teachers want to do anyway: improve their teaching.

Less than 10 years ago, Jill Wilson, then deputy head of Oakmeeds community college, thought she was a pretty good teacher. Her pupils achieved good results and gave her presents to thank her. But then she embarked on research for an MA degree run jointly by Sussex University and the local education authority and discovered she could be "an awful lot better".

The project was whole-school research on monitoring student progress and assessment. Jill Wilson found that the school's shiny new assessment system, with separate grades for effort and achievement, was not as effective as they thought. Pupils thought it too subjective and teachers were marking inconsistently. As a result, the school scrapped the effort grades and harmonised the award of achievement grades across teachers and departments.

Now, as chair of the National Teacher Research Panel, she is trying to persuade more teachers to get involved in this kind of active reflection on what they do. But above all, she wants to make sure that all research in education takes account of the teacher's point of view. That means bringing teachers and academics closer.

"Teachers should be partners in the research process," she says, "engaged at the design stage but not necessarily in carrying it out."

And she wants to see much more effective dissemination of research - in plain English. That way, she says, the findings are more useful and more comprehensible. "Teachers need crisp, to-the-point summaries of research for practical use in the classroom."

Wilson applied to be a member when the panel was set up in 1999, at the suggestion of her adviser in West Sussex (she had, in the meantime, done a stint at the LEA as secondary management administrator and then become deputy head of Oathall). She took over the chair in 2002, just as she became head. "The work of the panel is to gain credibility and be listened to," she says.

She's certainly done her bit. At the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association in 2001, she challenged members of the National Educational Research Forum for not doing enough to involve teachers. She was invited to join the forum shortly after. "You're starting to make a nuisance of yourselves," Professor John Gray of Cambridge University told her approvingly.

The high point of the panel's five-year existence came in March this year, when a one-day teacher research conference it organised in Birmingham attracted more than 400 teachers and was rated an out-and-out success. It heard speeches from Charles Desforges of Exeter university, and Carol Adams of the General Teaching Council for England; it featured a series of workshops presented by teachers; there was an all-day cafe with a surgery for those thinking of doing research; even The TES's deputy editor, David Budge, was there to dispense advice on writing for publication. Only a government minister was lacking to add that final seal of approval.

What will the panel do next? "Build capacity!" says Jill Wilson. But expanding the amount of research that involves teachers means finding the money to meet such costs as supply cover and academic expertise. Wilson is worried that the ending of Best Practice Research Scholarships for teachers and the severe retrenchment in academic research on education could put a squeeze on teacher involvement (see also page 20). But she finds growing enthusiasm among teachers and points out that there are other sources of support, such as the National College for School Leadership, whose networked learning communities bring together groups of schools to explore and share good practice.

Plans for the next three years include a further national conference and more developments at regional level. Jill Wilson would also like to see research methodology incorporated into initial teacher training so that newly-qualified teachers can become involved with research immediately. The panel could introduce a system of "kite-marking" good research and wants to work on publishing more, perhaps through the National Educational Research Forum's new bulletin (page 22).

"Research should become embedded in school practice as part of the culture of professional development," she says. Wilson is practising what she preaches. At Oathall, a 1,400-pupil, mixed 11-16 comprehensive in Haywards Heath, she is setting up her own research unit under the direction of advanced skills teacher Paul Ticehurst. It is already an unusual place: a beacon school and a training school, with a farm founded during the "dig for victory" days of the Second World War that was rescued recently after the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales. A one-year grant from the innovation unit of the Department for Education and Skills will pay for the time and expert advice needed to bring together the teachers engaged in research and those who would like to learn more. A "researcher in residence" from nearby Sussex university will visit the school regularly to work with teachers on their research skills.

New research will include work on pupils' behaviour, single-sex groupings, provision for the most able and the effect of the physical environment, such as classroom layout and displays, on student learning. But equally important will be the unit's role in spreading research, including some already under way at the school, such as a study of pupils' perceptions of being taught by trainee teachers.

When The TES visited Oathall, Jill Wilson was expecting a visit the following week from Charles Clarke. The Secretary of State for Education's visit was prompted by a meeting with Prince Charles. With friends in such high places, and all of Jill Wilson's charm and energy, it looks as though the National Teacher Research Panel will be making a very satisfactory nuisance of itself for some years yet.

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