September 2016

The know zone

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  • Exploring the evidence
    In the first of a regular research insights page, Matt Walker, from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), introduces how research evidence can help to improve schools and colleges, and influence policy. More
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In the first of a regular research insights page, Matt Walker, from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), introduces how research evidence can help to improve schools and colleges, and influence policy.

Exploring the Evidence

Teaching is not yet a research-informed profession. To some, the statement above may seem unfair, untrue or even irrelevant. To qualify it I should say that there are lots of teachers and schools who are doing excellent work in using research evidence to help improve teaching practice and, in turn, pupil outcomes. Indeed, NFER has been privileged to have worked with some of them (see, for example,

James Simpson is Assistant Headteacher at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Buckinghamshire – one of the schools we’ve worked with. James says: “We started quite modestly but the return on our investment has been so positive that we are now committed to putting the use of research evidence and enquiry at the heart of school improvement and staff professional development.”

The evidence, however, suggests that James’s approach, and that of these schools, has not been adopted by the majority. An NFER survey of 1,577 teachers and school leaders conducted in 2013 found that fewer than half of all respondents reported that they considered research evidence when making decisions about which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupil learning (see While over the last three years we have moved towards a more evidence-led culture in schools, the effective use of research evidence in schools remains a challenge for many.

But nor is education policymaking

The last two decades have also seen an enhanced government interest in the use of research evidence to inform policymaking. This has led to the creation of seven independent ‘What Works Centres’, including the Education Endowment Foundation. But despite these developments, there remains a gap between aspiration and practice. This has meant that evidence and evaluation are used less well and less often to inform policymaking than they should be (see

Evidence is key to improvement

The debate about the need for an evidence-informed teaching profession has recently been reinvigorated following the government’s White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere (see The paper emphasises the importance of building a strong, evidence-informed profession to help drive up standards in schools. Indeed, it is clear that evidence-informed practice is now regarded as instrumental to school reform efforts both in England and elsewhere (see Toby Greany, 2015: This is especially pertinent with so much focus on school self-improvement coupled with a drive for high-quality teaching within a devolved, and increasingly autonomous, education system. Nevertheless, the White Paper also includes a number of major reforms, such as further academisation, for which many consider support from the evidence base to be limited (see

An opportunity beckons

It is against this background that NFER is delighted to have been invited by ASCL to write regular research insights articles for Leader.

We conducted a literature review, published in 2014, of what is currently known about effective approaches to school and teacher engagement with evidence (see It demonstrated that teachers use a variety of different forms of evidence in their day-to-day practice, including pupil performance and other management data. Thus, research evidence forms a key part of an evidence-informed education system, but it is not the only part. All of this is in line with ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System (see, which proposes that right from the point of entry into the profession teachers should both use and create evidence to improve the quality of practice and outcomes for students. ASCL Director of Policy Leora Cruddas believes, “One of the fundamental characteristics of a profession is that it is based on a specialised body of knowledge. Both policy and practice should be evidenceinformed.” She said, “This is why ASCL has invited NFER to publish a regular column in Leader.”

We all have a role to play

I believe that researchers, policy-makers and teachers all have a role to play in building an evidence-informed education system. It is only by working together that, hopefully one day soon, we will be able to describe the education profession as truly research-informed.

  • Senior leaders can help by creating an organisational culture in which research evidence is valued, and where their staff have opportunities to access, interpret and use research to inform classroom practice – either directly or through evidence based CPD programmes – and to work with others to support its implementation.
  • Researchers need to make research evidence more accessible and prioritise topics of greatest concern to the profession.
  • Policymakers need to create an environment in which relevant, high-quality research is commissioned and where evidence informs policymaking.

Next steps

Over subsequent issues we plan to shine a spotlight on the latest findings from education research both to support school improvement and to give school leaders a more credible, persuasive voice in holding government to account over policy. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but what we do offer is a strong belief in the importance of using research evidence to inform policy and practice, experience of undertaking research into the issues that matter to the profession, such as academisation and teacher recruitment and retention, and a desire to work with you to use Evidence for Excellence in Education.