Why on earth would we want to appoint a research lead?” was a question my senior team and I wrangled with intermittently for the best part of last year. Opinions ranged from absolute assurance of the need for such a post to caustic commentary of the inevitable over-inflated ego and salary that would result.
We were already research-engaged. We have long eschewed the “tricks and games” of education exercised to guarantee outcomes over substance, and we have never been shy to take innovative decisions – our definition of innovation being to seek to do things differently where appropriate in order to do them better. An interest in research has traditionally underpinned our approach.
This has sharpened in recent years. Engagement with research is embedded in our structures, led by our non-senior leadership pedagogy team. The quality of this approach has been nationally recognised and acted as a case study for credible teacher autonomy and mastery.
So, everything seemed to be going well already. The question was: why would I sacrifice this embodiment of collaboration for a narrow channel of the same purpose?
Well, this summer I did appoint a research lead. The role will initially be a trial for a year but, if the early signs are promising, then it could easily become part of a master plan that will make a significant difference, not just to our college but to other local schools through our role in a local teaching school alliance.
The role has very clear functions:
● To stay informed of current and developing educational research.
● To act as critical adviser to the senior leadership team.
● To work alongside middle leaders as they implement department improvement plans, supporting them on the approaches that might work best for the outcomes they seek and coaching through to implementation.
● To contribute to our pedagogy team and our assessment innovation team.
An added challenge of the role is that they must consider research that reflects the actual work of the college and the departments concerned, which may not be their own personal area of interest and may challenge their own biases.
In the first instance, it is teaching and learning responsibility (TLR)3 for an existing curriculum leader. In support of the role, time is given to read and reflect but we are also aware that released time to work alongside others will need to be flexible and so can’t be fixed. Existing relationships with a local research school provide training that underpins the expertise.
Presence at SLT meetings will be “by arrangement” because it is not necessary to be involved in the scrutiny of the health and safety or human resources policy, but it is vital for discussions on teaching and learning and critical college improvement strategies.
We anticipate the outcomes to be varied, but to give a flavour:
● Advising the pedagogy team will ensure that all staff continue to be guided to improve, informed by research relevant to the issues presented by their classes and their subjects.
● The support of our assessment team will mean researching, trialling and, ultimately, recommending low-effort, high-yield approaches, and will be an important outcome for the whole college.
● When working alongside departments, the outcomes will be focused on the specific task in hand: boys’ engagement in one subject, lower-attaining students’ understanding in another.
Importantly, the key work will be owned by those leading the improvement; the role of the research lead is to ensure their time and energies are well-informed and therefore more effective. The need for an action plan, realistic milestones and expectations, to provide focus and manage workload, will be critical.
Additional responsibilities will soon arrive. This year, we will be participating or leading in three research projects through the Education Endowment Fund and the Institute for Effective Education. This is a natural step on our journey of the past three years and a continuing pathway.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the role evolves and what impact it has. We do not fit the criteria that allow us to become a research school but our model means we don’t have to wait for that kind of endorsement. We can “take control” ourselves, creating the model and impact that works for us, in our setting, for our staff and our students. Ultimately, that should be what engaging with research is all about: the big picture tailored to the local context, and a research lead is a key cog in getting that process working.
Caroline Barlow is headteacher of Heathfield Community College, East Sussex