JUST as teachers are increasingly seeing the value of school-focused research, we are informed out of the blue that core funding for the Scottish Council for Research in Education is to be dropped. What sort of support is this for practitioners who are showing a new will to embrace research as an integral part of their work?
Schools are now more alert to the need to collect sound evidence on which to base planning and action. Staff appreciate the virtue of developing a collaborative model of evaluation, where they themselves have a level of responsibility and control. We accept that "quality learning" is everyone's business, at class, department or whole-school levels.
However, we need to conduct our studies within the broader context and we want to be able to discuss data gathering techniques, findings and implications and realistic expectations with others. No teacher would claim that school involvement erodes the need for national bodies. If there is no means of exchanging findings, we all finish up reinventing the wheel.
School staff cannot be expected to work on research projects alone. Most of us recognise that practitioner insights complement those of professional researchers. We are looking to the wider community for information, advice and guidance. Indeed it could be argued that the research council's position as a support and information service should, if anything, be strengthened.
Teacher research is currently being encouraged at all levels, for example by the Headteachers' Association of Scotland. The problem for most teachers is that we are already pushed for time. Having to broaden our role still further inevitably brings anxieties - possibly even antagonism. Traditionally in schools there has been suspicion that those who had time to do research were not putting their backs into teaching or that their commitment was to something other than young learners.
There were indeed examples of "cupboard" researchers (usually striving for a higher degree) who were afraid to reveal their guilty secret. The very word "research" can sound intimidating to practitioners and seems to retain (unwelcome) overtones of academe and detachment from reality.
But the more teachers get drawn into research the more enthusiastic they become. Those who have taken part in shared reflection (even reluctantly at first) find it not only brings insights directly of benefit to learners but it also has enormous spin-off for personal and professional development. It can generate useful debate and fire the desire to try out alternatives.
Teacher research provides a useful model to pupil, reinforcing the notion that learning is not simply a matter of mastery of a body of knowledge but involves a willingness to engage with ideas, to question, hypothesise and collect data systematically. Doing research also brings teachers firmly back to the reality of the difficulty of engaging in the learning process.
Commitment to research is not enough by itself. We are always battling against time, and yet to collect reliable data there is a need to brush up on techniques and review methods of analysis. For many of us struggling to keep ahead of curriculum and other changes, such things as effective consultation strategies, sampling techniques and observation schedules are dim memories from initial training. Seeking out the relevant literature is time-consuming. A guiding hand from others with experience can be very helpful.
St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh has taken the brave step of appointing a research and development fellow as a resource for the whole learning community. It is, as far as we know, the first such appointment in Scotland. I have a bit of time to keep up with and inform colleagues about current research developments and can be approached about initiatives they are planning or engaged in.
Sometimes it is just good to have another view on the sorts of question which might be asked or what data could mean. We can talk about studies planned for the good of the school (class, department or whole-school level) or as part of the staff's own continuing professional development. People can be put in touch with others. I am a link, both within and beyond the school. This greater awareness opens up extended opportunities for evidence-based thinking to the development and evaluation of school policy and practice.
So far at St George's we have offered a consultancy ("critical friend") service, tracked research currently being undertaken in school, established research noticeboards and made working links with other agencies committed to research. A series of seminars has been planned in partnership with professional educational researchers, and we are delighted with the response so far. We hope to extend these opportunities to involve other local practitioners and establish a quality learning circle.
We are in the process of a junior school initiative which involved collecting staff and parent views. Further ideas from staff and students are beginning to come in regularly.
We look forward to working with colleagues in and outwith schools and to hearing how other schools are meeting the challenges of encouragement, staff, time and resources.
Judy Arrowsmith is research and development fellow, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).