'Only active learners need apply'

11th June 2004 at 01:00
When teachers get the research bug, it can change the whole ethos of a school - even its recruitment policy. Alison Shepherd reports

Inspirational. Exciting. Dangerous. Three words you might expect to see on a poster for the summer's blockbuster film Troy, but not words you would associate with the world of educational research. But this is how eight teachers at Mulberry school for girls in east London describe the effects of becoming researchers. For Mulberry staff, research is not just an add-on to their core duties, but fundamental to the whole ethos of the school.

"Having a real commitment to continuing professional development is central to all that we do. As a Leading Edge and Beacon school we can be really creative and innovative, and our research is integral to that," says Carol Jones, deputy head and director of training at the Tower Hamlets school.

"The research is exciting and stimulating. And because it is all validated and accredited by the Institute of Education, London university, it has real meaning and will not just disappear into the ether."

The school has joined forces with the institute to provide teachers with a sound academic base from which to work. Two lecturers deliver a taught outreach module, which not only covers research methodology but offers much-needed one-to-one mentoring.

All but one of the 12 teachers on the module are from Tower Hamlets schools. The final member was so impressed with the set-up he discovered on the internet that he has made several trips from Cornwall to join the sessions. "This shows how important it is to share research work with others," says Ms Jones. "It can be solitary work and you need the support of others to encourage and motivate you."

At first sight, Mulberry does not seem to be a school where teachers would have the time or energy to investigate such issues. It serves a very deprived area: 77 per cent of its girls are eligible for free meals.

English is not the first language of 99 per cent of the pupils, who are largely of Bangladeshi origin, and 18 per cent have special needs.

But the impact of the ethos created by its head, Dame Marlene Robottom, is obvious. None of the girls leaves without at least one qualification, and just over half of them earn at least five good GCSEs.

Dame Marlene recognises that her school has something special which has taken her 14 years to build up and which allows her teachers the freedom to fully develop their professionalism.

"When I received the 1997 Ofsted report, in among the less than positive remarks was 'Mulberry is a reflective school'. Not just the teachers. Not just the pupils, but the school. I held on to this because I knew that if we had that we could achieve much more."

This reflection is now built into the school's organisation. Non-contact time for the teacher-researchers is set aside in the timetable. Money to provide the necessary cover is earmarked. But this special treatment does not adversely affect other staff.

"It's about professional respect and trust. The researchers show other teachers what can be done and their work becomes the inspiration for others," says Dame Marlene. Since the programme started in September, many more teachers at all levels in the school have come forward with ideas.

Another school where research is woven into the ethos and the teaching and learning policy is Halstow primary across the river in south-east London.

Its staff are members of the Greenwich teachers research forum, which provides the same academic and mentoring backing as Mulberry's outreach module. They are working on finding out more about what, and how, children and young people think.

"Research here is not distant from our practice, but its lifeblood," says head Mary Whitehead. "It feeds the cycle of reflectionevidenceevaluationteaching and learning. It's what excellent teachers do."

Ms Whitehead ensures that all her teachers are just as committed to research by stipulating in her vacancy adverts that only "active learners" need apply. "It is so important on so many levels, not least of which is teachers taking control of their profession."

And, using a phrase echoed by almost all the Mulberry teacher-researchers, she adds: "It puts the excitement back into teaching."

As in Halstow, each of the Mulberry research topics has been chosen by the teachers, guided by what Dame Marlene calls "professional hunches".

"Each researcher owns their own work," says Carol Jones. "If it is something that you are really interested in, you will get more back from your time and intellectual investment."

Jill Tuffee, head of expressive arts, agrees. She began her project thinking she would investigate how schools encouraged pupils' creativity but, as her thesis developed, she realised it was far too narrow. "Now I am looking at creative schools and which environments develop creative staff as well as pupils," she says. "I started out believing that I was a creative person, teaching in a creative way. But the more I studied the literature, the more I realised how far I was from that."

Those personal insights have also informed the research of Lorna Hooey, head of Year 9, who is in her first year at Mulberry. She is evaluating the impact of the school's peer-mediation scheme and is finding the process invaluable in getting to know the girls. "I have never worked in a monocultural school and speaking to the girls as part of the research has helped me in many ways. They have also enjoyed taking part. It gives us a whole new relationship, which we can then take back into the classroom."

At Halstow, Mary Whitehead also believes that involving her pupils in the research has a very positive effect. "Our particular research enables us to hear the pupil's voice, to understand the individuals better. This has had a positive impact on both behaviour and personal, social and health education lessons. The pupils feel valued."

And, according to Dame Marlene, so do the teachers: "Research brings them right back into the professional world. It brings back the element of pleasure from knowing 'Yes, I can make a difference'."

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