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Different schools, same problem: What value teacher research and inquiry?

Val Poultney

Robust school leadership is seen as the most effective route by which schools and outcomes for students can be achieved (Greany, 2015). But how does a headteacher of a school graded ‘outstanding’ by the inspectorate maintain the motivation of its teachers to work consistently at this highest level? I am a university academic, and recently I was in conversation with the head of an outstanding secondary school about this issue. He explained that most of his staff are graded as ‘very good’/‘outstanding’, and student outcomes are consistently above the national norm. The school is not aligned with a teaching school alliance, nor is it part of a multi-academy trust (MAT). Networking with other teacher professionals is limited because of a restricted budget for cover teachers and for fear of compromising standards in the long term. We talked about teacher research to encourage staff to engage with wider external networks, in order to keep them motivated about practice. This might open opportunities for dissemination to enable the staff to adopt a more critical perspective on their work. He seemed interested.

Encouraging teachers to become ‘research literate’ is a challenge. Busy school lives are consumed with delivering ‘good’ lessons, keeping up with the latest trends and looking toward the next inspection. It could be argued that most school contexts provide a near-perfect storm for research inaction by teachers. As graduates, teachers have research experience, yet many are not encouraged to research practice. This prevents schools from building and mobilising their collective knowledge (Philpott & Poultney, 2018). At a systems level, changes to the inspection regime give rise to uncertainties about what type of evidence, beyond statistical data, constitutes school improvement. This is exacerbated by there being no agreed body of knowledge that teachers might draw upon in their defence – the so-called ‘knowledge-doing gap’ (Sheard & Sharples, 2016).

In contrast, at a primary school, working within the same constraints and pressures, I worked with a headteacher who was willing to invest time to support teacher inquiry. The school was under Ofsted-imposed special measures, and the head was keen to evaluate his newly introduced initiatives. He saw value in teachers researching and using evidence from their own practice to enable them to improve their pedagogy. Like the secondary head he wanted an approach that improved capacity for everyone to be a learner in school (BERA, 2014). He understood his leadership role in providing a supportive school climate for research and inquiry to happen. He had to build and maintain trust with staff and live with the outcomes long after I had left. My role was to galvanise teachers to engage with ways of collecting and evaluating their practice data. I needed to steer them to adopt an analytical approach to their practice.

‘By engaging in research these teachers focused on evidence they had collected, moving them from congenial (sharing) conversations to collegial or dialogic ones.’

Key to this was developing a critical disposition to the way teachers talked about their work. They used sharing conversations about their classroom practice, as can be heard in any staffroom, but these discussions rarely critically analysed their practice. By engaging in research these teachers focused on evidence they had collected, moving them from congenial (sharing) conversations to collegial or dialogic ones (Holmlund Nelson, Deuel, Slavit, & Kennedy, 2010). This focus generated probing questions about practice, resulting in a deeper understanding about teaching and learning.

After a successful pilot the primary head decided to invest in teacher inquiry and, with his senior leadership team, generated many studies which are still in use today. Many of his staff have moved to promoted posts, and some have taken the opportunity to engage in external networks to disseminate their work. The school is now graded ‘good’ by Ofsted. They contributed to a book about their research. This is a model of how partnership between a school and a university can help embed systematic teacher inquiry into a school and provide opportunities for everyone to improve their learning and future prospects. In the case of the secondary head – well, he is still considering this approach. He has my card…

For more information on this work see Evidence-Based Teaching in Primary Education, edited by Val Poultney (Critical Publishing, 2017).


British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2014). Research and the Teaching Profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system: Final report of the BERA-RSA Inquiry into the role of research in teacher education. London. Retrieved from:

Greany, T. (2015). How can evidence inform teaching and decision-making across 21,000 autonomous schools?: Learning from the journey in England. In Brown, C. (ed.), Leading the use of Research and Evidence in Schools. London: Institute of Education Press.

Holmlund Nelson, T., Deuel, A., Slavit, D. & Kennedy, A. (2010). Leading Deep Conversations in Collaborative Inquiry Groups. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 83(5): 175–179.

Philpott, C. & Poultney, V. (2018). Evidence-based Teaching: A Critical Overview for Enquiring Teachers. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Sheard, M. K. & Sharples, J. (2016) School leaders’ engagement with the concept of evidence-based practice as a management tool for school improvement. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44(4): 668–687.