Educational research is more often associated with ancient universities in great cities than small schools in remote corners of Scotland – but an Argyll and Bute primary is showing how that might be about to change.
Every one of Sandbank Primary School’s teachers has, for the past 18 months, been leading their own educational research in a “groundbreaking” project with the Open University.
And despite recent TES reports in which leading academics have queried the value of teachers carrying out educational research, they are adamant that their work has had a “massive” impact on the school’s 121 pupils.
Headteacher Sandra Clarke spent 15 years in England earlier in her career and was partly inspired by the research her old school carried out with the University of Cambridge – the crucial difference being that her headteacher allowed only one staff member to get involved at a time.
At Sandbank Primary in Dunoon, all six classroom teachers and the principal teacher have conducted research on topics in which they have a personal interest, including additional support needs (ASN), dyslexia screening, outdoor learning, numeracy assessment, parental involvement and play.
It has ensured plenty of enthusiasm among staff, although Ms Clarke said this could be like “wild horses going in different directions”. She believes an outside partner is essential – the Open University is advising staff and evaluating the project – and Argyll and Bute Council’s willingness to fund three non-contact days for each teacher to complete their work has also been crucial.
Learning for life
Last month Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, told TES that teachers should leave research to academics. His comments came weeks after another leading educational thinker, Professor Dylan Wiliam, claimed that the idea of teaching as a research-based profession was “never going to happen”.
Ms Clarke agreed that “high-end”, large-scale research might be best left to specialists. But with Sandbank’s focus on innovations that have a direct impact on pupils, she is convinced of the merits of the work her school is undertaking.
Teachers should always be furthering their learning and exploring changes in educational thinking, she said: “It can’t be that you graduate, then that’s it for the next 20 to 30 years.”
The Sandbank researchers’ time in the teaching profession ranges from two to 29 years, but all said they had benefited significantly from the project.
Acting principal teacher Brenda Reid said she had seen a “massive impact” on her P6 and P7 pupils with ASN, having investigated measures to pre-empt the behaviour problems that used to make her feel like she was constantly “firefighting”.
She told TESS that the conflicts that used to disrupt classes had melted away, and that she had seen children who had previously struggled with group work now thriving in collaborative situations.
Ultimately, Ms Reid added, the research had reduced her workload: “We do nothing that doesn’t have a direct impact on our children and their learning – there’s no point otherwise.”
The danger of leaving research to “someone higher up” was that it might have little impact on the specific needs of a classroom teacher, she said.
The school has a Gaelic-medium unit with 38 pupils, where teacher Anna Wombwell explored how play can boost literacy and the retention of knowledge.
The research has given her more confidence to argue that play should not be seen as separate from the nuts and bolts of numeracy and literacy. “I can definitely fight my corner better now,” she said.
Ms Wombwell added that working with fellow teacher-researchers had been “really, really helpful as we could bounce ideas off each other”. But combining research with a demanding workload would only work if the teachers were enthused by the project, she said: “I would have found it really hard to put that amount of time and effort into it otherwise.”
Argyll and Bute Council called the project “groundbreaking”. An interim evaluation by the Open University found it was too early to tell whether the benefits would be long-lasting, but said that “the overall feedback on both the practical and process outcomes was positive”.
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