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What might a self-extending school system with research evidence at its heart look like?

Megan Dixon

This article is part of the BERA Blog special issue ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’ (read more).

In 2010, David Hargreaves, in his think-piece, ‘Creating a Self-Improving School System’, presented a vision of a self-extending, autonomous school system in which ‘schools take ownership of the problems’ (Hargreaves, 2010). He suggested that the success of this model would be dependent on the local context and the ability of each school to tailor and evaluate solutions to the challenges they face.

‘Placing the use of research practices and evidence at the heart of a school improvement journey enriches day-to-day decision-making, and enables the development of strong professional capital and a framework for self-extending transformation.’

At a recent BERA–BCF event, I shared the journey of the school where I work: from the point of closure, to success as the foundation school within a multi-academy trust, a national teaching school and one of the first schools in the EEF/IEE Research Schools Network. This school, I suggested, presents an example of how placing the use of research practices and research evidence at the heart of a school improvement journey not only enriches day-to-day decision-making, but enables the development of strong professional capital (Hargreaves and Fullen, 2012) and a framework for self-extending transformation.

The school, situated in a medium-sized town in the North West, serves a community facing high levels of social and economic disadvantage. In 2009, the new headteacher and deputy headteacher recognised that a novel approach to improving the school was needed. Rather than relying on previous experience, or advice from others, it was decided to adopt an evidence informed process, using high-quality research and research principles and practices to build an evidence base with a single-minded focus on teaching and learning (Matthews et al, 2014). Furthermore, it was recognised that if teachers and teaching were to change, they needed to participate in a professional learning community that was focussed on becoming dynamically responsive to the children they taught (Timperley, 2008: 19). Put simply, the school sought to discover what worked best, for whom, when, and in what circumstances.

Building on the work of Sharratt and Fullen (2009), a process for enquiry was adopted. The first step called for a challenge to be identified and defined with reference to a wide range of data. Pupil attainment data, records of learning, teacher voice, pupil voice and parental voice all contributed to a rich picture of the issue. The senior leadership team, teachers and teaching assistants explored the research together through staff meetings, discussions, and iterative, recursive professional development opportunities. Staff were encouraged to transfer their understanding into practice, articulating their interventions and describing what they looked like, felt like and sounded like in the classroom. Six weekly pupil progress meetings provided the opportunity to reflect on the impact of the interventions and adjust (or change) accordingly. Finally, and mostly importantly, there was the acknowledgment that not everything worked, but every outcome was positive. If the pupils made gains, the school was richer in knowledge about what worked; if the pupils did not make gains, the school was richer in knowledge about what did not work and what to avoid in the future.

Quickly, a menu of pedagogies, interventions, resources and approaches began to be assembled – a toolkit exemplifying what worked, when, where, for whom and in what circumstances. All staff within the school became co-investigators in the development of the menu – collaborators at every stage, and co-constructors adapting and adjusting teaching practices ‘to secure promised outcomes’ (Hargreaves, 2010).

The school was recognised as ‘outstanding in all areas’ by Ofsted in 2013; a place where it was ‘no longer risky to take risks or quirky to try something new’ (Matthews et al, 2014); a place where both children and staff excel, and a wonderful, enriching place to work. It is now at the heart of a self-extending system, training the next generation of teachers, and supporting others to tailor and evaluate solutions to the challenges they face, in each local context.


Hargreaves A and Fullen M (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Abingdon: Routledge

Hargreaves D H (2010) Creating a self-improving system, Nottingham: National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services.

Matthews P, Rea S, Hill R and Qu Q (2014) Freedom to Lead: A study of outstanding primary school leadership in England, London: National College for Teaching and Leadership.

Sharratt L and Fullen M (2009) Realization: The change imperative for for Deepening District-Wide Reform, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Timperley H (2008) Teacher Professional Learning and Development, Paris: International Academy of Education and International Bureau of Education.