Talk it, walk it, live it, love it

The Importance of “ethos”

There was an INSET day when a former head decided it would be fun to run a little quiz, a ‘fill in the missing word(s)’ kind of quiz. It went something like this:


No ______ classes; Supported _________; Schools exist for _______; Get your __________; We ___________; and on it went, with a perceptible wriggling, squirming, shuffling from just a few staff. What was this? Some kind of mind-reading exercise? These were the new staff. Others were frantically scribbling their answers, as obvious to them as the pens in their hands.


The quiz was designed to reveal the extent to which school catchphrases were still permeating through the consciousness of the staff, catchphrases which have been used in briefings, staff meetings, line management sessions and appraisals for years. These catchphrases make explicit the ethos of the school and act as anthems for day-to-day conduct, motivation, sense of purpose and direction.


Take, for example, “No unteachable classes”, a pledge from the Head to staff that he would ensure that the pastoral systems would be rigorous, and that subject teachers would be free to focus on the main thing that mattered: teaching. That tenet continues, almost twenty years after its first announcement. Closely linked to this, is the teacher’s responsibility. We say “Schools exist for the education of pupils, not the employment of teachers”, a very clear reminder of our core purpose, and akin to the next “Supported individual accountability” which expresses the workings of our line- management system. Our school was working to internal targets long before this became the national norm, and in order to assure that expectations became actions, those actions were supported and monitored by those above.


In order to achieve targets, we were directed to “Get your improvements in early”, ensuring that Year 7s are inducted in the ways of the school as quickly as possible, in behaviour and classroom terms. We run a very successful and widely lauded peer mentoring system, again part of the package of support that runs through the school, matching challenge with the guidance needed to ensure expectations are met. Teachers are prompted to “Compel learning” – engagement in class is not an option, it’s a pre-requisite, and staff are expected to deliver lessons that meet the needs of learners…the educational and subject development needs, not according to the whims of personality or political diktat.


Underpinning all of these is the core expression “We set the standard”. Good behaviour is the norm, regardless of the habits of home or neighbourhood. Our town hit the headlines a few years ago, when a 9pm curfew was imposed on the local teenagers. Visitors from other towns came to see us in school, to see how we tackled these feral youths. They arrived at reception, having walked up the drive past non-vandalised courts and immaculate playing fields where pupils in impeccable kit undertook their lunchtime extra-curricular sports, and asked to be directed to “the other school…the one with the bad kids”. Soon after, they were convinced that yes this was the only secondary school for miles around, and yes this was the town in the news, but no – those children do not behave badly once they cross the threshold.


Knowledge of our pupils is key here. Form tutors do an excellent job of taking time to talk to tutees one-to-one. We speak of “the story for each child” so that, for all our expectations, there are exceptions, we realise, and some children might take a while longer to come round to our way of thinking, or might not be able to achieve exam successes – we must ensure we provide every opportunity here. Very few NEETs are recorded year on year because we plan ahead for our more vulnerable children, get to know local colleges, alternative providers and employers well enough to know who would suit our pupils’ requirements. We speak of being “fiercely ambitious” for each one. We are a true comprehensive – some children are pre-literate and pre-numerate, others will go on to study in ancient institutions.


More than any other catchphrase, though, there is one that reminds us that all children are precious and their life chances must not be wasted. We ask “Would it do for my child?” If what we offer is not good enough for teachers to entrust their own children to their colleagues, why should anybody else? As it happens, lots of our staff live locally and their children attend feeder primaries before coming to us. We speak of “N-T-S-ness” as a “tangible quality, the characteristic spirit of our culture, era, and community as manifested in our attitudes and aspirations” : ethos.


50 shades of uncertainty in educational research


Follows on from

Do we engage in educational research or don’t we?

Lots of people engage in educational research. Some of them make a living from it, even though they’re not teachers; some of them don’t, even though they are. It seems there are many tensions between the worlds of teachers, trained to teach (by the universities, for the most part, at least until recently) yet not engaged in research, and the worlds of researchers, engaged in gathering evidence about education, yet not involved, directly, in school teaching. At best, the university researcher offers an objective breath of fresh air to what might have become a stuffy room of ingrained practice; at worst, they are seen to function like a secret Ofsted, reporting to government agencies about what should be done in the world of education and how teachers should be doing it.

Researchers within universities may visit schools, engage in short- or longer-term partnerships and conduct research based on the activities they find going on or they might assist schools in trialling and assessing a new idea or strategy. Hundreds of journal articles per year are produced, aiming to explain, understand or evaluate practices, with the intention of adding to knowledge about the effectiveness of aspects of our education system. How many of these articles might there be- and what’s the likelihood of teachers being able to meaningfully digest the sheer amount of information contained therein, and to be able to act on findings in order to improve the lot of our pupils (and if teachers themselves don’t engage with this material, how can it be funnelled into schools and school practice)? Effective mediation between these two sectors is still thin on the ground, particularly in areas where access to a university isn’t easy.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the teacher practitioners, working within their own contexts, finding out ‘what works’ through intuitive procedures. Many argue that this is what teachers have always done – regardless of the call for ‘evidence-based teaching’ – indeed, that this is what good teaching is: responding to the needs of given individuals in a given class, adapting our delivery according to previous successes, anticipating need based on knowledge of prior achievement… Yet these shifts in practice happen minute by minute – we don’t wait for the statisticians, the peer reviews, the replication – we’re on to the next judgements on the next topic or the next test or even the next year group already. This sort of teaching is the art rather than the science, it’s the feeling rather than the fact and it’s based on never-ending cycles of adaptation rather than conclusive summation.

Can we engage in educational research or can’t we?

There are examples of teacher research that fall short of what might be considered an academic standard, examples of classroom based enquiry that are really personal journals of reflective practice rather than systematic, objective studies. For some, these provide opportunities for thought clarification that wouldn’t have been possible without the discipline of reflection and writing. For others, such a mini-study might prove to be the first step towards a more rigorous and informed approach to evidence-based teaching.

There are those who argue that true research isn’t possible in schools because of the difficulties in operating randomised controlled trials and there are those who argue that qualitative research falls short of the necessary objectivity required for a full explanation of causality. Others argue that most teachers are ill-equipped to engage in research properly because of a lack of mathematical understanding and inability to apply statistical methods or evaluate results using mathematical processes.

There are though, numerous examples of practices, such as the lesson study model, or similar in-house developments that have been created, that are being deemed as successful modes of enquiry. The claims here are two-fold: that practitioner enquiry leads to more effective classroom delivery, and that such a focus is itself a more fruitful form of CPD. Perhaps both claims, like many issues in this debate, need to be further evaluated.

The extent to which teachers can make use of educational journals is often cited as a key decider in whether or not we can engage with the world of educational research – the Capitol, compared to the Districts of Pamen – it seems. Doubtless, academic writing is complex, abstract, specific and stylised, and almost certainly it presents challenges to the untrained eye. This is not to say that research leads or other staff development figures could not assist here. Several schools operate ‘reading/study’ groups, whereby those with the eye and appetite for such reading work with the journals and pass on key messages to other staff as part of ongoing development work. A claim related to this is that our ‘local’ universities, if we have them, might be open to partnership work – some operate collaborative projects whereby schools offer up their settings, classes and pupils for the purposes of the university’s research, and the university staff, in return, offer time and expertise in developing capacity for school-based research among teachers.

Will we engage in educational research or won’t we?

It depends. Increasingly there are calls for teaching to be evidence-based, or evidence-informed. In the ideal world, if this is to be the case, teachers will be properly trained in what might be an entirely new venture. Time will be allowed for a gradual building up of skills, trial projects – the efficacy of school-based research itself needs to be researched and evaluated before a whole-scale roll-out might be attempted. More sensibly, we might ensure that new entrants to the professional are fully trained in research processes and practices, and that their career progression is at least in part built on increasingly significant contributions to evidence-based developments.

More likely though, we should anticipate a Sunday morning announcement, via The Telegraph or The Andrew Marr Show, telling us all to start the next day on research projects, that our salaries and performance management are going to be dependent on the successes of these projects from Tuesday and that our schools will be closed down by Wednesday if we don’t.


Should we engage in educational research or shouldn’t we?

This might be for you to decide as an individual, or it might be something that is decided on your behalf. It might be something totally new to you, something from far back in the mists of time or something for which your recent training has prepared you well. You might work in an already research rich school and be keen to take your place among the research leads. If your school is part of a chain, or affiliated to an umbrella organisation like SSAT, you might have access to conferences, training materials, mentors or university link projects. If you’re in a training school alliance, you might be involved in school-to-school collaborative projects.


And if lots and lots of reading about educational research is something that excites you as it does me – feel free to browse the links below….

Thanks to all those listed:


Research-related links goldacre paper.pdf[site-timestamp]/Response to Intervention BERA 2014.pdf



Heraclitus is often paraphrased, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” And like the river, the classes we teach will never be the same again, for having been taught, they are changed, and having changed, they require new teaching.


These are complex processes, interwoven with social and emotional erosion and deposition, with the transportation of other factors such as time of day, week, term or year, curriculum innovation, ability grouping, school ethos. Is the equipment of educational hydrometry sophisticated enough to gauge how well our efforts as teachers are causing our charges to discharge through the school system?

I am in favour of reflective ‘research’ as a tool for school improvement and a means of staff development. My school has previously operated the Teacher Learning Academy (introduced by the GTCE, later overseen by the College of Teachers) scheme and I was an accredited assessor; I’m fairly research literate, having started the University of Cumbria’s MA in Education with their Systematic Enquiry unit, essentially a fairly rigorous introduction into the methodologies of educational research. And I’m not afraid of the maths – through studying Psychology at university before switching back into English, I’d grasped enough statistics to run chi-square, Wilcoxon and t- tests, to understand statistical significance and standard deviations.

And yet.

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There are so many pieces to the puzzle of educational research – and I wonder, with the many claims currently being made for schools to be more ‘research – informed’, whether enough is known by teachers about what counts as research, who should be conducting it, for whose benefit, and where, and why and of course how. Assuming that the calls for more research in schools are backed by research evidence into the wisdom of this (and leaving aside the OECD point about how many new ‘initiatives’ are introduced and never evaluated..), should schools be engaging with the smoother, deeper, broader, less turbulent channels of the rivers of university research, or with the steeper, rockier, narrower streams of our own contexts?

Many teachers in schools have difficulty accessing university research, particularly if staff are not engaged on Masters level programmes. Some papers are available online as free pdfs, though these often have to be sought out and finds are more often serendipitous than systematic. I have to confess that I love this stuff, I read these papers wherever, whenever I can – out of interest, though, rather than any sense or measurement of their utility. Many teachers are aware of the recent petition calling for access to journals though this also makes me wonder how meaningfully schools could engage with this material, given the enormous volume of it. With whose findings would we engage? Why? How do we know these findings are generalizable to our own contexts? I read recently that few studies are replicated in educational research, and that of those that are, the ones that tend to come up with similar findings are where the same researchers work again on the same topic. Hmmm.

It has been said that pseudo-evidence, ideology (or just plain hokum) masquerading as research, has been responsible for the introduction of poor educational thinking into schools – Brain Gym, ‘learning styles’ and the like – but many teachers were not aware of where this ‘evidence’ came from in the first place…Many swallowed these ideas along with the rest and just as we are subject to conflicting pieces of dietary evidence in the media – “Eggs good”, “Eggs bad”, “Wine good”, “Wine bad” – so we are similarly, regularly, force-fed indigestible initiatives relating to what works in education and how we should be teaching.

Earlier this year, Education Week ran this article


– it was greeted with some cheers and “I told you so”s. Barely a fortnight later, this followed


And so these debates start to take on pantomime proportions. “Flipped learning is great.”

“Oh no it isn’t.”

“Oh yes it is”

“SOLO is brilliant.’

“Oh no…” and on we go. Where does this leave the teacher keen to find the best way of teaching 10Eng Set Z?

So the puzzle becomes more complicated, as we are told by governments who introduce politically- rather than educationally-motivated policies, which haven’t been trialled and won’t be evaluated, that we should be more research-informed and evidence-driven. There is little professional voice en-masse in education and teachers are, not for the first or last time, frustrated when changes are brought in to our working practices which we believe will not work, will not bring about the desired improvements.

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I am reassured that I am not the only one to struggle to square the circle of the research issue. @wellylearning shared this – Dr Simon P Walker outlines, in ‘Taming the Wild West of Educational Research’, a number of areas where the square peg and the round hole are still being expected to accommodate one another:

“Beware the heavy boot of higher education. In the perceived academic hierarchy of the British mind, universities look down on secondary schools, which look down on primary schools. For their own reasons (to do with funding amongst other things) universities are piling into school research right now. Their presence is welcomed, their expertise in research design and analysis is vital. However, they generally have slightly less interest in actually improving school education as opposed to measuring things designed to improve it. Teachers want to improve things; this is a noble and arguably more important goal and we need ensure the ‘doers of teaching’ retain control over the ‘measurers of education’ ”

And I am significantly heartened by Andy Tharby’s Reflecting English post. Starting from a similar point to myself “about how and whether our education system would benefit from becoming better research-informed”, Andy outlines the gradual implementation of “a range of forms of research” at his school. A number of effective plans are explained, highlighting a number of important themes- the new system needs to be made to complement existing/previous CPD priorities, needs to offer different routes for different staff and needs to meet the school’s own priorities. Read his ‘Hearts and Minds’ section a couple of times and tell me you don’t wish him well in his project.

I’m also feeling more confident about the ‘how to’ part of my anxiety, having built up a collection now of superb posts from @DrGaryJones – Gary’s productivity in January has been amazing… There’s so much in this series that will be so useful to many teachers and schools.

My thanks also go to @c_hendrick for this and to this. It’s good to hear from Carl, and to see through @wellylearning, how research projects are actually working at classroom level. The Wellington approach seems to be energetic – teacher learning and student learning seem to go hand in hand.

Given the key findings of the Sutton Trust report – it surely is time for teachers and schools to be deciding, in relation their own contexts, which aspects of professional and subject knowledge development constitute “great teaching” and providing these for the benefit of pupils – aspects of research may be part of this process, but I don’t think it should be seen as a panacea, any more than differentiation, PLTS, interactive whiteboards or card-sort activities. Not yet, anyway.


There are many routes to improvement. The rivers keep on running.

A follow-up to this article can be found in the next piece.