Category Archives: Research

I’ve been spending some time reflecting on journal clubs and their use in schools recently. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak at events about journal clubs in education for a while now, and whilst I’ve tweaked my presentation a few times and always use a new paper for discussion, it’s still pretty much the same thing and I think it’s been good for me to go through this process of reflection so that it doesn’t become something I churn out for the sake of it.

This Easter I’m lucky enough to be going to Toronto for rEDOnt. Whist I’ve presented at events for other organisations, the majority of my presentations have been for researchED and as this is how I started out doing it it’s quite nice to have been able to develop and explore the promotion of journal clubs with them. There is always a treasure trove of speakers at researchED events – all giving their time for free – and it always seems like they’ve got a PhD and books and a gajillion followers on Twitter and they talk about hardcore research and RCTs they’ve done and theories of how research should be applied in schools. I experience quite a bit of imposter syndrome, doubting the legitimacy of my presenting at these events (although I’ve seen ‘names’ doing the same thing a few times so don’t feel too bad) but it’s important I remember the number of new people who come and tell me about their clubs. There are journal clubs across the UK, in Sweden, the US, Canada all because of me and if I allow myself to be honest, that feels pretty awesome.

People talk about research projects they’ve been involved in or opportunities for schools to take part. There is a wealth of stuff going on and I love it. I think it’s increasingly important that people come away from researchED, or other events, with something practical they can do in school or with colleagues and even better if that is something that doesn’t need huge amounts of planning or money and can be done by any group. After a few researchED conferences, and when I’d taken part in (and tried to take part in) some research projects within school I found that for us particularly as a small school it was difficult to take part. Our cohort was too small or didn’t fit trial recruitment criteria. In the one RCT we were part of our pupils found it hard to access the pre- and post-test materials so we ended up as an additional case-study. I’m sure there will be things we can take part in more successfully but I’m aware that we won’t be the only school in this position and for those who come to researchED and want to take back and share something solid that can get their schools engaging with research I truly believe journal clubs are the way they can do it.

There is understandably a significant focus at conferences on how research can be applied in the classroom and how to measure impact on pupil outcomes, or how policy makers at different levels can make research-informed decisions, and I think this risks narrowing the research we look at in schools. I think it also risks an over-reliance on research summaries and meta analyses which whilst they definitely have their place and I’m not saying we need to stop this, it’s healthy for teachers and leaders to be critical of the research they’re presented with and face their biases. Teachers also need to be aware that a lot of research isn’t ready for use in the classroom and I think it’s just as important that this is looked at too.

Implementation science and knowledge translation expert, Melanie Barwick, put my thoughts into a more concrete form recently in a blog post about ‘Why Knowledge Translation and Implementation Science are not Synonymous‘, particularly when she said ‘Not all evidence shared for building awareness or informing is ready for application, but this does not make it less beneficial to the knowledge user’. It’s just as important that teachers become aware of ideas, different perspectives or potential developments in research as it is they find out about something new to try. Journal clubs are a space for teachers at any level to read and discuss research with colleagues without the expectation that they put any of it into practice. It’s great if it means coming across something new to try and explore it further, but it should be equally valid to have an awareness of the research that’s out there and be critical of it and make links and connections and prompt reflection on practice.

It’s amazing to be part of the charge of schools becoming more research savvy and the increasing awareness of the big ideas in education, and despite my occasional doubts over whether I belong, I want to be there to give people something to take back and share something concrete and doable in the hope that it prompts a wider discussion and participation.

I really hope those coming to rEDOnt find something in journal clubs that they feel they can do, starting clubs and starting a conversation. I’ll bring the biscuits 😉

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What if using education to prepare students for the 21st century is actually just giving them more education?

We caught up with Endeavour last night – it was set in a 1960s private school and started me thinking about the whole ’21st Century Skills’ thing (what we should be teaching kids and how we prepare them for this new world we’ve already had nearly 20% of). I was wondering what people would say a 20th Century Skill looked like if you had to pin it down – given the changes that occurred over that 100 years, and I thought about how the pupils on the screen were older and in non-compulsory education for the time – privileged whilst their contemporaries were out at work. But I was mostly watching Endeavour.

This morning there were some tweets about from people at the Global Education & Skills Forum debate on 21st Century Skills including this one from Laura McInerney that included this picture:

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I thought I’d take my idea further and have a look. I’ve only used Wikipedia for this and there are many with the knowledge to sweep my nugget of an idea away but my thoughts are that with each ‘industrial revolution’, instead of narrowing a curriculum to prepare children and teach them a new skill-set, the answer is to lengthen their education and broaden their skill sets.

So how do the various revolutions so far fit in with this? Despite the fact there are gradual changes in-between the dates on the image Laura tweeted, I was quite impressed when I had a look.

1784 – 1780’s saw the start of the Sunday school movement. Educating children (boys to start with) on Sunday because they’re at work in factories for the other 6 days a week.

1870 – The Forster Act of 1870, leading to introduction of compulsory education of children ages 5 and 10 in 1880

1969 – Raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 enforced from 1 September 1973 (but Wikipedia says they were preparing for this from 1964 so it all includes 1969 quite nicely)

Now – the Education and Skills Act 2008 said that by 2013, all young people in England have to stay on in education or training at least part-time until they are 17 years old, and that by 2015, all young people will have to stay on in education or training at least part-time, until they are 18 years old.

Not implying correlation or causation or anything like that, it was just interesting to look at. Of course increasing access to education will have added to the likelihood of each new ‘industrial revolution’ and I’m fairly certain that the dates of each ‘revolution’ will happily match up with a wealth of other changes – let’s face it, I’ve just selected some dates off a Wikipedia article and that’s not going to stand up to super scrutiny, but I was pretty happy to see there were things that matched up.

The paper I used for the researchED Haninge Journal Club last week was about enjoyment and aspiration of middle grade students and there was a small bit that caught my attention regarding boys’ aspiration and the assumption that they’ll be able to get a job in an industry without good grades – something that’s increasingly less likely. Their 21st Century is less likely to involve simply falling into an industry and I think education is the answer.

From: Smith M, Mann MJ, Georgieva Z, Curtis R & Schimmel CJ (2016) ‘What Counts When it Comes to School Enjoyment and Aspiration in the Middle Grades’ RMLE Online, 39:8 (p10)

The other thing if course is that even if the answer to education for the 21st Century is ‘more education’, it doesn’t give an answer as to what that education should be about and doing more of the wrong thing for the sake of doing more isn’t particularly useful. I’ll leave it there until next year when there’s a new series of Endeavour and I hope it gives me an idea about the rest.


All researchED events kick off well and whilst I’ve sat through a fair few ‘we aren’t expecting a fire alarm test today so if you hear a continuous bell…’ housekeeping announcements in my time, never before has this included instructions of what todo in the event of a lock-down. This made for a very exciting start to rEDBrum (and a silent wonder if each of the change-over bells would run to a count of 5 and we’d (very sensibly and in an orderly fashion) be required to dive under the tables). It didn’t happen (for the best really). It was also the most purplest school I’ve ever been to and if the TES do an award for having a theme and running with it,  Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School wins hands down. The announcements and introductions were swiftly followed by a mini-keynote from Daisy Christodoulou on why we need to improve assessment and this ended up an unintentional but welcome theme threaded though my day.This event was also the first time I brought someone else from school to a researchED conference; a surprisingly big thing for me. I’m conscious that I hold researchED dear as my ‘thing’ – there are people I know, ideas I’m familiar with and challenged by, and despite the day-to-day stresses of work I can rely on something like this to put me back on track with why I love it. Of course I share what I learn back at school but bringing someone from one work-world into my other work-world was strange but positive. Anyway, at 7:45 on a Saturday morning our school principal Marcus hopped into our car with his copy of Daisy’s ‘Making Good Progress’ to read along the way.

Introducing a ‘novice’ to all this was a refreshing way to view researchED. Aside from the general what-is-researchED-who-is-Tom-Bennett-yes-everyone-really-does-do-it-for-free stuff there were a lot of things I found myself giving an overview of that I pretty much take for granted now and think lots of other people do. A couple of speakers openly glosssed over who Dylan Wiliam or Daniel Willingham are because researchED is pretty much taken as an environment where that’s basic knowledge – a solid case of David Weston’s point on Fundamental Attribution Error. There were a lot of hands up when Tom asked whose first rED it was in his introduction and whist some may be of the opinion that it’s unthinkable for a teacher of 30 years to not know about ‘Inside the Black Box’ I reckon there’s more out there that don’t know than do.

Marcus reading ‘Making Good Progress’ was actually a happy coincidence. I’d popped into his office to arrange our travel arrangements for the weekend and rattled of a few of the people who were going to be speaking, including Daisy’s keynote, and whilst I explained some of her work he produced the book from under a pile of incident sheets and exclaimed that he knew the name was familiar (promptly writing his name in the front when I asked if it was the copy I’d leant to another colleague). He’d not started it yet but when I popped in again on Friday it’s pretty safe to say it was blowing his mind even from Wiliam’s foreword.

My own day was perhaps subconsciously threaded with assessment/feedback/progress. I’ve spent a week cramming in baselines for new pupils and using a new system for the first time (GL Assessments in English, Maths and Science alongside Hodder Reading and Spelling tests for those who are interested). Ben Newmark’s talk on the mess that is target grades and Tom Sherrington’s take down of ‘Can-do’ statements make complete sense to me and it’s confirmation that what I assumed for a long time was naivety on my part – that the reason for all these non-sensical things must have been explained on everyone’s PGCE courses and it was all a ‘teacher’ thing – is actually based on a snowballing of decisions that nobody is certain of why it’s done; it just is. I’m still moving thoughts on this round in my head so I might consolidate those more clearly at some point. I have to say though, my take-home feeling is it’s no longer just theories of better ways to approach things, there are researched models out there, Ofsted are pumping out the message that they aren’t looking for specific things and school leaders have to be really brave to leap and make these changes. The fear of change is very real for many reasons and not all leaders have the autonomy they need to really go for some of these things. I’m not sure what it’ll take to get going but I sense that as some are starting to jump off the cliff edge it won’t be as hard for others to follow.

As always I left yesterday feeling positive and full of ideas. We’ve still got a week before half term and I’m desperately trying to finish off Relay before Friday so positivity is welcome. It was great to see people I’ve not seen since September and for my fox shoes to make friends with Cat Scutt’s. I’m still rubbish at talking to people at these things and shall endeavour to do better next time. I think Marcus got a lot out of it too. I know it’s consolidated some ideas for him and given food for thought in other areas. I also know that whilst most of us on-line buddies are introverts and ignore each other IRL, he’s 100% extrovert and turns out he spoke to loads of interesting people! We’re in a big period of change at school now and I’m hopeful that there can be increase in evidence informed decision-making. At the very least I’m hoping that when I enquire nicely for time off to do yet another international conference or plant the seeds of hosting a rED event the boss’ll at least know what I’m banging on about.


This was a juicy one. Our PE teacher Joe came to see me the other day to ask if I took requests for looking at research – Research Lead 101 says yes I do, so I did. Apparently PE Edutwitter has been talking about cooperative learning for teaching PE. He wanted to know if there’s anything specifically that supports cooperative learning for SEMH pupils.

Certainly in regards to more academic subjects (the cooperative learning literature seems to use ‘mainstream classroom’ a lot but I’m adding SEND to the mix so don’t want to confuse things) direct instruction with occasional support from a bit of group work is something I’m happy with. In PE there’s obviously a lot of group work going on so it seemed like something that was worth a look at, particularly the opportunity to look at it from an SEMH/SEBD (the literature hasn’t caught up with SEMH yet) point of view.

The other thing that intregued me was that a few times now (I’ve no references, just vague memories) I’ve heard sports instruction – direct instruction, drilling, practice of individual skills rather than whole-game – as examples for what we should be doing in other subjects. Here is PE looking at the alternatives to doing that.

I thought it was a good opportunity to try out something I’d been mulling over and create a single-subject add-on to Relay. I’ve ended up creating ‘Relay FOCUS’ which in this instance looks at the research surrounding PE and SEBD/cooperative learning more broadly and then explores how they might work together. I’m not sure whether Joe was quite after what I’ve ended up with but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out and hopefully there’s more individual requests that I can work on.

I know it’s not perfect and it won’t cover the whole topic nearly enough, but it’s not intended as a formal piece of literature research and hopefully it’s enough to help Joe decide whether he want to explore the approach or whether it’s something he wants to look into more.

If you fancy having a glance, the pdf’s here: http://westburyschool.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Relay-FOCUS-Cooperative-Learning-and-PE.pdf


I’m going to say it. rED17 was the best one yet. There have been researchED conferences that rival of course, and the light-up pens have reached legendary status, but the atmosphere at this one was something different. Whether it was the venue, Chobham Academy, with its circular building that forced delegates to cross paths and talk as they found their next session, or whether on a more personal level I felt like I knew more people there, there was a buzz I’ve not sensed in the same way before.

Despite recent naysaying (and outright attacks) around researchED there appeared to be lots of people who put their hand up to say it was their first time so the great conspiracy doesn’t seem to have put them off. A noticeable feature was the conversations going on. In previous years dining room chatter was filled with overhearing people talk about the speakers they’d seen, in awe at who they were, and this year people seemed to be discussing the session and the ideas. Instead of the queue in the loos being all “I saw X, I love him. I’ve read all his books.” there was a definite vibe of “I went to see X talk about Y. That really fits in with what we’re trying to do with year 9”.

That’s not to say there weren’t ‘big hitters’ – 2017 attracted speakers such as Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb and Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman; but I wonder if one of the achievements, and I really mean achievements, of researchED over the past few years is to make it normal to see and hear these people in person and it’s taken away some of that awe – allowing the debate to take hold. Nick Gibb tried (I think. I’ll be generous for a moment) to stick up for researchED and its contributors by talking about those academics who hadn’t engaged as being stuck in their ‘ivory towers’. I have to say, I think a considerable amount of ivory-tower-placing comes from us, not them, and the more we do engage and interact the further down the tower they come. It works both ways.

I did go and see Nick Gibb’s session. To be honest I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t outraged either though and used it as a good opportunity to catch up on Twitter. I can be a crazy note-taker during these things but my word-for-word notes from this one read:

  • Telling us about rED
  • Embrace challenge and debate
  • Answering the h8ters
  • Ebacc, reading
  • Reporting G4+

Tell me what’s new with that? The most impassioned bit was the first bit and that was pretty much reading Tom’s blog out loud (we’re at rED, and whether we agree or not, we’ve probably read Tom’s blog haven’t we?). The Schools Week article made it all sound punchy – you can view it here and decide for yourself.

So. To the good stuff!

My second session was Sam Sims with Katie Magee and Dhana Gorasia talking about Journal Clubs. Now, I do like a journal club and this was brilliant to go to as it was Sam’s 2014 session that boosted my explorations into journal clubs to what I’m doing now. The session explored a pilot study of journal clubs as a way to break behavioural habits around teaching and the theory behind this. The second half featured examples of how it had worked at Canons High School.  I always make a point to stress that journal clubs aren’t a policy meeting and to avoid getting bogged down in how one paper could be used in school; Katie and Dhana showed how the two can work together with requests for papers on specific strategies and discussions that lead to implementation in practice. I liked the advice that journal clubs can be used to spot positive strategies and behaviours that are already happening in schools and enable these to be shared more widely. There seems to be a few exciting journal clubby things on the horizon, particularly with the Chartered College of Teaching, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens and getting involved where I can.

Session 3 found me in the Britney-infused sardine can* that was David Weston’s session on Toxic schools. David explored how the school environment impacts on outcomes, looking a lot of things that Kev Bartle had talked about in York last summer. Coming from a school that has historically had a small number of staff with close relationships that is now expanding hugely, I’ve thought about this idea of trust and leadership a lot recently as the dynamics are being forced to shift. David took us through various biases to recognise and avoid (aided by occasional Britney) with some pointers to take back. His presentation’s here if you fancy it and I’m looking forward to any follow up sessions involving late nineties/early noughties classics with a dance routine.

*sorry Britney

It was me after lunch – good turn out, Journal Club info here – www.edujournalclub.com

I always find that once my own session is done I can sort of float through the rest of the day without the weight of it (literally, lugging biscuits is HARD) but it does make my notes a bit more relaxed. I went to see Martin Robinson give a warning about Growth Mindset. It does concern me that this is a bit of a bandwagon that looks fancy and evidence informed so it was good to pick up some ammunition for the time it descends on us here (and Martin was lovely, obvs). I went to an Institute of Ideas conversation about Mental Health in schools that was interesting. I agree with points that if we are over-cautious we risk medicalising ‘normal’ responses from pupils and found this idea that we have a ‘cultural script of fragility’ hit a point too. However I’m in a school where our pupils have (by definition) a range of mental health issues and I can see the problems of under-diagnosis and lack of intervention too. A teacher’s job is to teach but they’re with us a considerable amount of time – quite often the only stable time they have, and we have a role in safeguarding them too.

As has become normal at these things one of the best sessions was hosted by a local boozer (and a proper boozer it was too) where I had some great conversations with lovely people. Some about education, some about shoes, some about the Midsomer Murders Tour… I’ve stepped in to defend researchED a couple of times recently and I think we all know there are people who aren’t going to be swayed either way. It was, as always, a diverse day with rushing round behind the scenes that looked ripple-free from the outside. The familiar company was great, the new faces were also great, and I was left feeling overwhelmingly positive (even after the karaoke) about all the opportunities we have to do great things. If people choose not to engage with researchED then I really hope they find something they do like because it’s a shame to miss out.


I’m not too enthusiastic about ‘teachers doing research’; I am more enthusiastic about the opportunities for schools to take part in larger, more formal research trials and partnerships with higher education. My position set out, I think that what school staff can do is question things.

The staggered start to the new academic year for schools has caused my timeline to be peppered with INSET tweets throughout the week. A few have caught my eye and one particularly seemed to connect with last night’s #UKEdResChat which asked “Are we in a research bubble? Is so how can we pop it?”. The tweet’s from a locked account so I won’t embed it but it read:

“Really pleased how positively staff took on board our drive to embed a #GrowthMindset across school! #ThePowerOfYet”

This tweet was from a primary school colleague in our TSA Innovation Hub – a follow on from the Evidence Based Teaching Group we had, and shows engagement and dissemination of research we have touched on within the group and whilst it’s not bursting the bubble it is perhaps stretching it a bit.

It strikes me though that if research informed staff, including research leads, are striving to build research literacy in schools, is the ultimate goal not to have everyone on board, but to have them questioning? I appreciate that this single tweet doesn’t have a lot of information in it and there may have been a discussion around the approach – it’s just 140 characters. However, if we are to break out of the cycle of the same people driving the research-informed agenda in the same schools I think we need to be looking to encourage the critical eye rather than introducing top-down initiatives. It’s almost a cliché.

Taking the example of Growth Mindset, I know from my own reading that there has been a lot of debate around implementation in the classroom and my basic understanding is that it’s questionable as to whether there’s an impact and to be implemented properly staff need formal training.  I don’t know how this school is approaching it (hopefully it’ll crop up at our next Innovation Hub meeting) and I feel uncomfortable using them as an example when I don’t know any detail about their method so putting that to one side, I think introducing something like this is an opportunity for the type of enquiry that should be encouraged in schools.

Questioning things isn’t the same as resisting change but about exploring initiatives and measuring the impact. Introducing school-wide initiatives should involve reading around the subject both for those driving the programme and those who are taking it on. When new ideas are put to staff it should be a positive thing to be met with questions and leaders should be able to answer those questions – either having read around the topic and predicted them, or by offering the opportunity for staff to answer the questions within an implementation and review process. We don’t need to be doing big research projects but at least exploring evidence for and against and looking for change if you do do it. And leaders shouldn’t be afraid to say that something hasn’t worked.

We need the rhetoric to move from ‘we’re going to do this’ to ‘we’re going to find out if this can work for us’. Doing with, not to. This isn’t something that should threaten leaders but that they should embrace. It can be difficult to accept if you have spent a lot of time in preparation but when changes are met with constructive questions that are taken on board and incorporated into the way we work, I think it will be an indication that the research bubble is at least expanding and we are truly embedding research in everyday practice.


Yesterday evening’s asked what aspect of teaching, learning, school systems or government policy etc, what would we commission research in should we have the opportunity. It took me a while to think of anything at first as it’s quite an overwhelming brief but I jumped in with the suggestion that I would like to see some proper investigation into unqualified teachers.

Replies to my choice varied from “I don’t get the fuss” to “it undermines the professional aspect of teaching” – which mirrors wider twitter discussions I’ve seen over the past few years, but what I haven’t seen is anything beyond perhaps stats of how many people are being paid as unqualified teachers. Last night’s brief discussion offered solutions to the problem and mooted reasons for individuals choosing to qualify or not but the general vibe was that (even if the idea of unqualified teachers didn’t offend) qualifying was best. I found points on professionalism interesting as I wondered whether that was more important to people who have completed training than a reason to qualify – does it de-value the qualification in the eyes of some? The point of my original question though was to work this out. Where is the evidence that qualified status is best?

A quick search on Schools Week (a good font of knowledge) throws up a couple of recent stories that offer some figures and concerns. In July this year they had a piece on a Labour Party report that

The number of teachers in state-funded English schools without QTS rose to 24,000 in 2016, a figure that has grown by 62 per cent since the rules around unqualified teachers were relaxed in 2012.

I won’t regurgitate all the stats but they’re in there so have a look. The points made echo other comments I’ve seen though which is pretty much – standards will decline vs schools can hire on the basis of ‘skills and experience’. Another story from July reports on a school rehiring (not quite all) its teaching assistants as ‘Teaching Fellows’ to work towards a teaching qualification and the points raised by this story surround the exploitation of the sort of teacher-on-the-cheap argument to stretch budgets further. It’s only a little look but I think the two main worries about unqualified teachers – ‘standards’ and ‘exploitation’ are pretty much covered by these. Thing is though, there’s a lot of opinion on how it ‘might’ affect pupils or the ‘potential to…’. Do we not need to look at whether it is or not?

My personal opinion is mixed. On the surface it seems reasonable to want all teachers to be trained, but my experience tells me there are some awesome unqualified teachers that get great results – both in terms of qualifications and on a more general level with pupils. Off the top of my head, reasons for me working with unqualified teachers include: staff cover where TAs have taken a class for an extended period and been able to have an uplift in pay to do it; vocational teacher with years of college and industry experience; art teacher with 20+ years experience as SEND TA, a fine art degree and work as an artist. Reasons for them not wanting to qualify include it being a temporary role; nearing retirement and not thinking the extra work’s worth it; not wanting a whole-school responsibility for the subject. There’ll be other reasons but you’d have to ask them. What I do know is that they were/are all brilliant at their jobs and it works for our setting really well. Different situations will appear in other schools where it does and doesn’t work as well but even though gut-instinct is useful, I think there’s an opportunity to explore it more formally.

So what do I think needs to be looked at? I don’t have an idea for a specific research question yet – more ideas of the data that needs to be gathered in order to prompt research questions. As a starting point, things I think we need to know include:

Where are they teaching and how many?

  • In independent schools, state schools, and separate figures special schools/alternative provision settings. This needs to be gathered for each key stage.
  • Data on the social demographics of schools and OfSTED grades.

What are they teaching?

  • Which subjects are unqualified teachers working in?
  • External test/exam data
  • Primary – likely to be teaching a range of subjects; Secondary – more subject specific?

Who are they?

  • What is their experience – as TAs/other school roles; college/higher education; teaching abroad.
  • Qualifications – subject specific; ‘teaching’; training in specific programmes.
  • Other responsibilities held in organisation.

Reasons for not qualifying

  • Personal – happy in role; lack of entry qualifications; financial costs of training etc
  • Institutional – school not willing to enable; not able to fund

Perceived gains of qualifying

  • From both unqualified teachers and the wider teaching community. Issues such as pay and professionalism seem to be top of the list.

Some of the data for these points will already exist and may already have been collated, but other bits require going a bit deeper and finding out what’s happening at school level. I’m happy to offer my opinions whenever this comes up as a topic and there are some interesting ideas for how to qualify the unqualified, but we can’t do that well without looking at the current picture and working out what schools, pupils, and staff, need.


I came to the realisation yesterday that our whole school is a bottom set.

I was very much looking forward to hearing Professor Becky Francis deliver her keynote at rEDYork yesterday. I’ve heard her speaking a few times, both as presenter and as questioning audience member, and I pretty much want to be Becky Francis when I grow up. This time the talk was about ‘The problematic interface between research, policy and practice: the case of attainment grouping’, with an overview of the general picture and an introduction the EEF-funded ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ study.

As our school works up to full 7-16 two-form entry we are finding ourselves in a position where we’re starting to allocate children to classes based partly on their attainment. There are other things we consider and sometimes there are still very different levels in the same class, but there’s a general move towards a ‘higher’ group and a ‘lower’ group. I don’t think the pupils are ever explicitly told this is the case – perhaps in KS2 where they switch up the classes for different subjects a bit more, but I’m not sure the pupils are particularly aware. Anyway, as we’re just starting to get on the ‘set’ bandwagon I was particularly interested in the presentation to see what I could take back to school.

What I found was something much more than a few take-away bits of feedback. I tweeted that I felt like I’d had an ‘epiphany’ and I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly, but as I sat scribbling my notes I pretty much worked out that our whole school is essentially a bottom set and there are probably other schools that are similar. I’m not sure how coherent I can be with what I’m thinking but I feel like there’s an answer to something here.

Our general school demographic matches Becky’s description of the make up of bottom sets – disproportionate representation of low socio-economic status, gender imbalance (we’re designated a mixed school but all 75 of our pupils are boys). All our pupils have been taken out of other schools, possibly after a few permanent exclusions and a stint at the PRU, normally for their behaviour (regardless of ‘ability’). With all of this they’re statistically likely to have already experienced being in a bottom set and many already have low self-confidence and feel like they’ve been written off. Add to this that for every one of our pupils they’ve got a bunch of similar friends back in mainstream, it’s probably not something that’s isolated to our school.

I’m still trying to write about my recent thoughts on cultural capital for a separate post and whilst this has thrown a bit of a spanner in things, I still think that as a staff team, and as a general school ethos, we recognise that we need to instill an attitude that they can achieve and be successful – providing them with opportunities and in many cases, a future. What we probably don’t admit, or perhaps recognise, is that the symbolic implications of segregation and the societal associations between setting and ‘high standards’ are probably so ingrained that we are still creating limits for them. Even without putting any of our pupils in sets, they come to us already matching the criteria for a bottom set and I’m wondering if our associations between the demographic and expectations are so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If staff have these societal preconceptions, pupils have them and parents have them, what happens? Do we just accept it?

If we really tried to analyse our practice we could probably identify quite a few of the factors Becky mentioned – both ones we thought we were tackling and ones beyond our control. Lack of fluidity in groups – we’ve got two classes of c.8 pupils in each year; fluidity is tricky. Quality of teaching – we have a few specialist subject teachers but run a mostly primary model through to KS4 with class teacher to class group in all subjects. Teacher expectations and pedagogy – success is brilliant, but if we’re honest, we aren’t surprised if they don’t get straight A*s (or, for some, Ds). I worry that we become complacent and lower expectations are normal. This isn’t just staff as I said before, this is entrenched in staff, pupils, parents, society. It makes the successes we have stand out – even the small ones. And we celebrate them, and we should.

We are highly aware of the limitations that have already been put on our pupils but I realise now that it’s possibly the tip of an iceberg that doesn’t just impact our pupils and maybe the Bottom Set Effect has a wider, self-fulfilling reach. In more than one session yesterday I found myself coming back to the thought that ‘Does everything just work enough not to be seen as an urgent problem?’ Maybe this is one of those things too.

So what do you do when you realise your whole school is a bottom set? How do you go about changing these subconscious preconceptions? Even if they’ve turned into conscious preconceptions, can we change things? Change is hard and it’s risky.

I’ve still not quite formulated what my thoughts are but I have questions about whether as we expand into KS1 it’ll be better – getting them before the Bottom Set Effect hits – or as we get them earlier, does that ingrain the bottom-set-ness earlier? Are we actually just creaming off the bottom set early? Is that self-fulfilling? What happens when you put the bottom set in sets? How does it work with our small classes? I know when I’ve looked at setting in the past there’s been evidence that the impact is less on small groups due to the focussed attention etc. We’ve got 8 pupils and two staff in a class so maybe it’s not too bad?

Regardless of whether we set or not, I’m still struck by how closely we seem to fit the ‘criteria’ for a bottom set and I can’t help thinking that if we can apply some of the advice that comes from either the EEF trials or other investigation in this area, there’s an answer to something somewhere and I’m not even sure what the question should be, but we can make things better. We can always get better.


Enquiry isn’t a specialist activity. It is something we all do regularly – making a mental note of something that went well or how we could change things for next time. As easy as it seems to reflect on what we do day-to-day, the starting point for deliberate enquiry can be difficult. Key to engaging with research in a genuine, long-term way as a practitioner is to start with reflection – reflection on practice and reflection of practice.Reflective-practice is sometimes presented as the opposite to evidence based practice; the qualitative vs the quantitative. Quantitative research is held up as the best research can be, whether that’s the EEF toolkit and trials or the What Work Clearinghouse measures. One argument for evidence based practice over reflective practice is that the latter risks pathologising the practitioner and finds fault with the teacher or student rather than the wider environment.

Action research (or at least the term) is gaining popularity and the close link between action research and reflective practice leads to arguments that they lacks value and relevance between settings. Cautious voices remind that quantitative studies don’t necessarily provide the answers, as Dylan Wiliam says, “[In education] everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. The interesting question is ‘under what conditions does this work?”

It’s not realistic for everyone to be part of large-scale RCTs, particularly in settings that regularly don’t fit selection criteria like small or special schools. This can feel isolating and make research engagement seem irrelevant. Reflective practice is one way to get going and can take many forms, from keeping a diary to working in pairs or triads or developing cyclical action research projects, so where do we start and how can we incorporate research into what we do?

The Project

It’s frequently repeated that teachers don’t have time to trawl through and decipher research so I decided to have a bit of an experiment with taking a single research paper and setting it out in a way that can be used in the classroom. This is a paper I have used myself on several occasions to provide a framework to identify an area of focus and use as a starting point for enquiry.

The suggestions of how to use the document I’ve created are just that, suggestions. It doesn’t give instructions or solutions for practice and it doesn’t use multiple sources of evidence – the intention is that once a focus is identified, more refined research can take place if necessary around that area.

Whether it’s used for enquiry in the closed classroom or over a wider group; as a starting point for a whole school focus or simply to monitor the classroom over time, I hope it shows how research can be used in the classroom and it provides encouragement for more people to bring evidence into their practice.

So here it is in glorious pdf form. Let me know what you think.

A guide to ‘Evaluating the Learning Environment’ adapted from Ysseldyke, J. E. and Christenson, S. L. (1987) ‘Evaluating students’ instructional environments’, Remedial and Special Education, 8(3), pp. 17–24.


I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations recently about the reliability of ‘old’ research and whether it has some sort of ‘use by date’.

It is of course reasonable to be wary of over-relying on research that was published decades ago, and taking note of age when reviewing evidence is important, but it shouldn’t be a case of dismissing something because it’s been around for a long time if the points are still relevant. Fads come and go but that’s perhaps even more reason to look back at older research – new ideas quite often aren’t new at all. People use examples like ‘Would you trust your doctor if they prescribed using leeches?’ – maybe not for everything, but there are quite a few situations where leeches are still used in medicine today.

Should ‘good’ research be repeated to keep it fresh? Even if nothing new is being done? When this does happen, a quick look at the references and all the previous papers by the author/s are usually still there – of course there are likely to be a few changes but the general take-away messages remain the same and then the work is criticised for re-hashing the old stuff for the sake of it. We hear arguments that research needs to be repeated and ideas challenged as we learn more about how we can improve teaching but as soon as someone writes about a ‘debunked’ idea there are criticisms in the opposite direction.

For example, I’ve seen enough evidence from people I respect to believe that there is no mileage in the concept of individual learning styles but if those same people present evidence that has changed their minds (as solid as that would have to be) I would of course have to reconsider my own position. That’s a provocative example of course but my point is there – we can’t criticise research simply because it’s testing something we think is long-disproved – we need to criticise the research itself.

As research increasingly finds its place in schools, with different staff at different levels of engagement, it’s important to stress the need to develop critical evaluation skills. The role of research lead includes helping people to come at research from all angles – treading round popular ideas of the moment, being critical but not dismissive in the face personal bias. We need to be careful with new research that simply repeats itself rather than challenging ideas and be aware that not everyone has heard all the evidence around each theory –  however much we think it’s been discussed to death.

Those of us who have heard all the arguments to the point of fatigue need to make sure we use and develop our own critical eyes too and remember how easy it is to run about in the echo-chamber. As we focus on how we help our colleagues we can’t forget to challenge ourselves. As long as we are aware that the age of a piece of research may limit its value to our work then we’re a step ahead, but maybe it’s more ‘best before’ than ‘use by’. When it comes to it, we don’t have access to everything we need to make a fully informed decision and we need to trust what experts say. If I’m honest, whilst it doesn’t sound overly pleasant to be treated by leech I would have to trust that the doctor knew what they were on about,  and that some older ideas have a place.