Research School Network: The Impact of the Research Lead In his final blog for the Durrington Research School, Mark reflects on the difference he may have made.

The Impact of the Research Lead

In his final blog for the Durrington Research School, Mark reflects on the difference he may have made.

by Durrington Research School
on the

After 19 years in the classroom, and the last 5 of those spent as a Research Lead at Heathfield Community College, I am off to pastures new. Leaving a job, especially a job you have loved and tried to make your own, is a time for melancholy reflection. You look back on your time and wonder just what lasting impact you have had on a place. For no one is this more tricky than the poor humble research lead.

When you go for a job interview, the interviewers tend to be obsessed with impact. What impact have you had?” they ask, glowering over their glasses, How do you know?” In the classroom you can point to pupil outcomes, increasing option numbers, the fact that you are yet to lose a pupil on a field trip. More informally you see the impact you have had in the smile of pupils when the light bulb moment arrives, in the work you look at or in the proud comments of parents when you meet with them. But for the research lead, the impact is often far more intangible.

Part of the problem is that the purpose of the research lead role is itself pretty ephemeral. It might be to do something like increase research literacy in the school’. We might try to do this by writing about educational research in our particular school context, running journal clubs or assisting in the provision of CPD so that it is informed by research and not the whims of whoevers turn it is to speak.

If I look at my own impact here I can see that we now have a brilliant teaching and learning blog packed full of articles by different teachers all sharing their own practice and usually reflecting on the research that shaped them but it is impossible to know whether this has made a difference to practice on the ground.

We might instead think of the role of the research lead as not just helping staff to become better informed of the research that is out there, but instead to engage in action or practitioner research alongside them to better understand what works in their context. We could then measure impact by seeing how many such pieces of research have been done. We have certainly been busy at Heathfield, running a range of research under the auspices of the now much missed Institute of Effective Education and using its findings to help guide our use of such things as retrieval practice or transition in science. We have also researched methods of closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged groups of students alongside other schools in the county and worked within the school to identify more effective ways of assessing pupil progress.

There is a but’ looming.

But should we measure our impact in terms of activity, or the result of that activity? In the long term, will there be any demonstrable change as a result of the research we have done? Will the conclusions stick in people’s minds and then in their practice or be discarded as new priorities take over? In a profession where everything happens so fast, waiting to know if something had an impact seems an unbearable imposition.

We might also assign to the role of the research lead the responsibility for shaping whole school policies. To work with the senior leadership and middle leadership teams to ensure that actions taken across the school are informed by research. I could try to point to changes at Heathfield where I think I have had a hand in enacting change. Working with our deputy head on the Evidence Based Education Assessment Lead Programme to ensure that our assessments did what we thought they did (they didn’t, they hopefully do now) or with our Continuing Professional Learning lead on sessions for staff on the important issue of pupil motivation and disentangling it from the more nebulous notion of engagement’.

What we have here though is the achilles heel of the research lead, the problem of attribution. I would love to attribute some of these changes to my ideas and my actions but, like most research leads, I work with an incredible team of research informed individuals both in SLT and the chalkface. These changes may well have taken place with or without me. Improvements might have happened due to being informed by a particular piece of research, or another piece of research or a random conglomeration of events outside of our knowledge or control.

Short of an angel turning up and pulling an It’s a Wonderful Life” moment on us, we have no way of knowing what impact a research lead has had on a school and perhaps this is the lesson it leaves us about educational research in general. The process of learning might be relatively simple, but education in a broader sense is maddeningly complex. There are just too many moving parts to ever really know what changing one of them will do to the rest. The best we can do is be as informed as we can about what is likely to help, under what conditions it is likely to help and how to implement it in such as way that it is likely to help, and then we stand back and hope the decisions we take will have the impact we foresaw comes through.

And if it does, we have to be humble enough to accept that it might have happened for reasons that are simply beyond our knowledge or control.

I’ll leave you with this exchange between Granny Weatherwax and Mightily Oats.

[GW] Bein’ human means judgin’ all the time,’ said the voice behind him. This and that, good and bad, making choices every day… that’s human.’

[MO] And are you sure you make the right decisions?’

[GW] No. But I do the best I can.’

[MO] And hope for mercy, eh?’

A bony finger prodded him in the back.

[GW] Mercy’s a fine thing, but judgin’ comes first. Otherwise you don’t know what you’re bein’ merciful about.’

(Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum, 1998).

Mark Enser
is, for a few more days, research lead and head of geography at Heathfield Community College.

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