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The primary role of research leads: Developing a research culture within schools

Faizaan Ahmed, Oaks Park High School

In 2014, BERA published Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system. The report made the case for a research-literate profession, research-rich teaching environments and stronger partnership between teacher-research and the wider community (Furlong, 2014). One of the key steps in developing a research culture within schools has been the appointment of a designated research lead.

What do research leads do?

Despite the increasing numbers of research leads, there remains ambiguity surrounding the aims of the role. How then can the role be interpreted? Tom Bennett highlights five potential roles: gatekeeper, special adviser, critical friend, auditor and project manager (Bennet, 2015). Riggall and Singer highlight at least 11 different responsibilities of research leads (Riggall & Singer, 2015). With such a breadth of potential points of focus and school contexts, it perhaps becomes useful to consider intended outcomes. All schools investing in research are aiming to improve outcomes through making better-informed decisions. However, to achieve this requires change at all levels – or in other words, a change in culture. Therefore, developing a research culture in schools is arguably a unifying aim for all research leads (Godfrey, 2014).

In recent years, the support for schools wanting to develop research cultures has grown. For instance, Chris Brown provided an excellent blueprint for leading research in school (Brown, 2015). However, this, along with guidance by the National Foundation For Educational Research (NFER), tend to focus on school leadership and not that of research leads. Here, I hope to outline the potential ways in which new and established research leads can begin to develop a school research culture.

How to develop a school research culture?

Developing a school research culture involves two primary stages: 1) assessing needs, and 2) selecting approaches to meet those needs.

Stage 1

As the law of diffusion of innovation explains, there are stages between the introduction of an innovation to the acceptance by the majority (Everett, 2003). As a result, identifying makeup of your staff body is the first step in developing a research culture. Many schools can be characterised as consisting of the following three groups.

  1. Researchers: You will have a small group of those who are researchers themselves, be it those completing master’s degrees or PhDs themselves. They are likely to want to be involved in researching.
  2. Research engaged: This group is your critical middle. They are the individuals who will likely dip into books and blogs, and engage in professional conversations regularly. However, they may struggle to access research at times, and therefore you will be able to bridge this gap.
  3. Research informed: This group might be considered your laggards. They are unlikely to actively pursue research. They may be experienced practitioners or simply excellent teachers who have tried and tested methods that work. Regardless, you are likely to simply be aiming to provide them with research which they may consume and consider applying when and if appropriate.

Stage 2

Once you have identified the composition of your school you can then begin to consider which vehicles are most appropriate for practically developing your school research culture. As outlined by Ahmed (2020), practically instituting a research culture can involve many different vehicles, including: newsletters, booklets, collaboration, libraries, display boards, continuing professional learning, pupil engagement, booklets, journals, NFER marks, research champions, meetings, book reviews in briefings and bulletins, performance management, conferences and podcasts. With a range of vehicles and over time, the hope is that ‘new ways of seeing and acting become habitual, reflexive and ingrained in practice (Swaffield and MacBeath, 2006).

With loosely defined roles, many research leads find themselves caught between a role that provides great freedom, but also little structure. This blog post has attempted to demonstrate that the role of a research lead centres around cultural change, and this can be achieved through a simple two-stage process of assessing needs and identifying responses.


Ahmed, F. (2020). How to develop a school research culture: A guide for research leads. London: Independently published.

Bennet, T. (2015). The school research lead. London: Education Development Trust.

Brown, C. (2015). Leading the use of research and evidence in schools. London: IOE Press.

Furlong, J. (2014). Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system. London: British Educational Research Association and the Royal Society of Arts.

Godfrey, D. (2014). Leadership of schools as research-led organisations in the English educational environment: Cultivating a research engaged school culture. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44(2), 301–321.

Riggall, A., & Singer, R. (2015). Research leads: Current practice, future prospects. London: Education Development Trust.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovation. New York: Free Press.

Swaffield, S., & MacBeath, J. (2006). Embedding learning how to learn in school policy: The challenge for leadership. Research Papers in Education, 21(2), 201–215.

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