Researching Schools: Stories from a Schools-University Partnership for Educational Research
|Author(s)||Colleen McLaughlin, Kristine Black Hawkins, Sue Brindley, Donald McIntyre, Keith Taber|
Dr John Butcher
University of Northampton
|Review published||17 November 2008|
Researching Schools is an unusual and worthwhile book, charting what emerges as the glorious failure of an attempt to develop an innovative schools-university partnership. Its 13 chapters reflect, in an admirably honest way, the trials, minor successes and ultimate failure of the partnership (or more correctly series of partnerships) to transform a group of secondary schools into ‘researching schools’. The book is written by five prominent members of the education faculty at the University of Cambridge, the most eminent of whom, Professor Donald McIntyre, died in 2007. While not his last book, and while his is by no means the lead voice in this collaborative publication, Researching Schools encapsulates many of the themes around teacher knowledge McIntyre pursued in his career.
The introduction is a useful contextualisation of debates around the schools-university partnership in educational research, acknowledging the stimulus from Hargreaves’ (1996, 1999) plea for teaching as a research-based profession, and Hillage et al’s (1998) criticism of the quality of educational research and its use by practitioners. The reader is introduced to the Schools-University Partnership for Educational Research (SUPER), a collaboration between Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and a number of regional schools. The faculty had worked with individuals in schools or within courses, but recognised a fundamental problem: how to disseminate school-based research findings to impact beyond where the research was done. Key to SUPER was the role of Teacher Research Coordinators (TRCs) in schools, with their time protected, providing research training to colleagues, in order to generate research useful to practitioners, carried out with practitioners.
The book is not always coherent, suffering from a multiplicity of voices, and its case studies can be repetitive. What emerges across chapters, is that research means different things to different stakeholders: teachers look to the usefulness of immediate practical application; Heads to overall effects on their school; HEIs to a contribution to useful knowledge through dissemination. This is exemplified in the case study chapters of the 8 schools (written with the schools’ TRCs). These are the weaker part of the book, not because they lack intrinsic interest, but because they inevitably repeat generic points and are so context dependent and therefore unique, the reader is left with little to learn for their own practice.
For example, we learn in Chapter 2 that Arthur Mellows Village College was active in ITET partnership with the university, but was not seeking a research programme, had no research culture (other than individual enthusiasts), and so needed gradual development to springboard future developments. In Chapter 3, that Chesterton Community College had an enthusiastic TRC with time to help colleagues, facilitate mentoring, provide dissemination opportunities and build a critical mass to drive research, making it part of the language of teacher discourse. In Chapter 4, that Comberton Village College had (as in others), different agendas to be resolved, so research was conceptualised as ‘raising the standards of teaching and learning in the classroom’, rather than knowledge building. As a counter-narrative, Chapter 5 featured Netherall School, which started with a ‘substantial’ research fund, and an image of being research active, but the turnover of key staff, combined with fractured initiatives within the school meant that this most promising partnership failed.
In Chapter 6, Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ School began with a confident assumption that research will lead to improvements in teaching and learning, which will raise standards of achievement (aligning with the school improvement plan). But individual vulnerability to outside pressures prevented research being sustained and it was still difficult to embed outcomes of individual research beyond the research group. In Chapter 7, St Ivo School’s Head wanted to transform school culture, as well as benefit pupils. Yet the school’s research bursaries were not taken up, Ofsted pressures intervened, there was a turnover of key people, and some resistance and apathy from staff. These are useful as stories (as the book’s subtitle suggests), but take us little further.
The SUPER partnership was described in 3 stages: 1997-9, beginnings with no external agenda, other than criticism of academic educational research; 1999-2002 a grant from the university’s Wallenberg centre, but an unrealistic belief that partnership would meet the needs of both schools and university; 2002-2005 (pragmatic) funding from Networked learning Communities signalled a shift, but little evidence was found of research from one school affecting the others’ policies and practices. The sudden withdrawal of BPRS pump-priming funding during stage 3 undoubtedly affected research in the schools.
In a subsequent chapter, what emerged is described as a shift from individual teacher-researchers to collaboration in ‘inquiring schools’, encapsulating the idea that if individual teachers are researching, they are engaging with research. Claiming a shift from ‘no research culture’ in schools, through emergent, to established, and finally embedded, seems a post-hoc rationalisation, and overly optimistic. We learn that slow, fragile progress towards becoming a researching school is based on imaginative, sympathetic and persevering leadership, as well as alignment with school culture. But cultural barriers were difficult to overcome – research did not become a core activity, there was little collaborative research, time and perseverance was required to ‘hold the line’ against external initiatives. Even if, as noted, all partners wanted research to inform ‘best practice’, and improve what educational research was achieving, divergent issues surfaced, of ‘researching schools’ operating in a policy vacuum. In the end, joint staff learning was not realised. The partnership ended asymmetric, with the HEI supporting training in research skills. The authors cling to a belief that partnership could address classroom isolation through collaborative problem-solving, but final pleas for different workloads for teachers to enable them to become more like researchers seem pie in the sky. I am not confident that, on this evidence, the schools “strengthened their research and inquiry culture” The book ends announcing a new MEd for teacher researchers in the partner schools, and this looks a positive way forward.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in fostering more effective links between universities and schools. I was just surprised more was not made of the opportunity afforded by Training Schools, many of whom are currently working with a range of HEIs: thus offering a very different conceptualisation of ‘researching schools’.