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We've got the proof

Education research must connect with the real world - which is where teachers come in. Martin Whittaker studies the evidence

Researchers all too often treat teachers as subjects of studies that have little relevance in the classroom. But a group of teachers and heads are trying to change all this. They aim to demystify the research process, making it more accessible, raising its profile in the profession and boosting teachers' research skills.

The National Teacher Research Panel was set up four years ago, initially to give an expert teacher perspective to national agencies, teams and individual researchers. It is backed by the General Teaching Council for England and the Department for Education and Skills.

"It has two jobs," says Philippa Cordingley, who founded the panel with the Teacher Training Agency, and now advises it as chief executive of a private consultancy, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education.

"It provides expert teacher input for people proposing large-scale research, so educational research works with teachers and not on them. The second part of its job is to promote and encourage teaching based on research and evidence."

The panel meets once a term and consists of 15 serving teachers and heads, recruited for their research expertise. Members serve for three years, with a rolling recruitment programme replacing a third of them each year. The panel usually has around 100 applications for the places on offer.

Candidates have to provide evidence of their own research, be observed grilling an expert witness from the research community, have their skills assessed in a group seminar and precis a research summary.

Since its launch, the panel has commented on research policy papers, including the DfES professional development consultation document and the National Educational Research Forum's national strategy paper. It offers advice to continuous professional development programmes, and every panel member sits on one or more research advisory groups.

One of its tasks has been to produce guidelines for schools hosting research projects. Some schools have been reluctant to take part in research by outsiders, and there have been problems when schools have pulled out of projects halfway through.

The panel cites the example of research on teacher effectiveness, which could raise sensitive issues in schools; these could be addressed by building a partnership between the school and the research team.

It also suggests questions schools can ask researchers so they can pinpoint, for example, how the research will benefit pupils and teachers, or how it will fit into school routines.

"It's ensuring that teachers are not passive recipients of research," says Philippa Cordingley. "They become active in helping the researchers think about how to make their findings useful."

The panel is developing a website, which it hopes to use to promote educational research for teachers. And over the coming months it will produce guidelines for continuous professional development co-ordinators who are interested in making more use of research.

Philippa Cordingley sees the panel evolving to become more responsive to teachers. Over the next 18 months it aims to make close contacts with all the subject associations and professional associations.

"We're also creating local links," she says. "And we're building a close relationship with the National College for School Leadership's network learning communities initiative."

Next year it plans a national conference celebrating teachers' engagement with research. It supports secondments for all as part of professional development.

Jill Wilson, head of Oathall community college, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, has been a member of the panel since it began, and is its current chair. "We want to enable teachers to engage in the debate about research so they are consulted, so they support the design of projects, so they can be involved in steering groups," she says. "It's important that classroom teachers have a say. It's being aware that inquiry into our own practice is about school improvement and professional development."

Her membership of the panel is having a knock-on effect on professional development in her school. Oathall community college is a beacon school, and is applying for training school status and advanced school status.

Jill Wilson believes engaging with research could help tie together these initiatives. Eventually she wants to see the school establish its own research department.

"If being a beacon school is about sharing good practice, we need to know what our good practice is, so we can evaluate it, research it and look at effective dissemination. You can't just go to another school and say, 'try this'.

"There have always been teachers involved with research through professional development, but it's had too low a profile. Teachers have done MAs, they've engaged in research, then it's never used. Yet you have teachers with research skills, teachers who are enquiring. It's about taking control and driving the agenda."

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