“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink!”

In this guest blog post, the lovely Ffion Eaton, of Tarporley High School and Cheshire Vale TSA, writes about her experiences thus far in striving to become an evidence-informed Teaching School Alliance.

“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink!”

These, of course, are the famous words of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, spoken whilst adrift in the midst of the ocean.  And this is exactly how I felt about the research-direction of our school back in 2015.  Having instigated a whole staff Action Research CPD programme which led to becoming a ‘treatment’ school in the EEF RISE project, we were ready to take a greater challenge; that of our newly-formed Cheshire Vale Teaching School Alliance. How would we ‘spread the word’ about how to use evidence to inform and help us better evaluate decisions for school improvement? How could we get our strategic partner schools to join forces in thinking along the same lines; in leading and evaluating teaching and learning? The RISE Project had given us access to so much brilliant material and ‘thinking’, it felt only right that the natural direction for our TSA was that we could do the same with our own strategic partners.

And that’s where the ocean comes in.  I knew I would need to draw on expertise greater than our own to facilitate really high-quality CPD in this area.  I knew I wanted to work with an academic research partner who could guide us in our decision-making but also provide access to the most recent and relevant thinking and research in education. I knew that we would need Headteachers across our local schools to understand how this could make a difference. The answer it seems, was not to be found in the education departments of our local universities; whilst most wanted to make a link and create a wider network with us, what they were able to offer were funded Action Research programmes. This was not what I had in mind. If you like, this was the Albatross we were ready to release. Higher Education it seems was an ocean of possibilities, none of which quenched our thirst for an evidence-informed alliance.

I wanted a bespoke programme of CPD that could take senior leaders on a journey of learning very much like I had been privileged enough to experience as part of my RISE Research Lead training. We wanted to go beyond ‘Action Research’ and explore how systematic use of evidence could inform whole school improvement.  Back at school, our own CPD model was becoming more and more closely aligned with school priorities as we moved away from Action Research to evidence-informed CPD – could someone guide our alliance schools though a similar process? The answer, of course, was Evidence Based Education.

EBE Director Stuart Kime and I had been working together on the RISE project and as soon as I shared my vision, we realised that a Research Support Partnership was an exciting opportunity.  Soon after, EBE presented to our local Headteachers and it didn’t take long for senior leaders from across our alliance schools to sign up for this trail-blazing model of two years’ embedded CPD.

And what a difference a year makes.  We now have 15 leaders across 11 schools coming to the end of their first year. The Research Lead training, support and guidance they have received, with ever-brilliant facilitation has meant they are empowered to lead evidence-based decisions back in their own contexts. All the leaders involved are effusive about the experience it has given them as they have become increasingly research literature- and evaluation-savvy.  We can see first-hand the impact of a training programme like the RSP which is focused on providing leaders with the framework to apply their learning in the best way possible for their contexts; that’s the important part of all of this. It provides the chance to ask questions, debate, to clarify and to actually consolidate learning in a very real, school-based way – unlike lots of CPD out there.

When we embarked on this journey, the model was one of the first of its kind potentially in the world; very soon, we were told that schools and educational networks in Tokyo and USA followed suit. Evidence Based Education has provided us with a bespoke model mitigating the drift in the ocean our research strategy could so easily have become. We now have leaders from our RSP presenting at national research conferences and have developed our collaboration further – we are now working together with EBE on a DfE research trial looking at ways to reduce teacher workload around marking and feedback.

To return to Coleridge, we continue on our RSP journey definitely not sadder, but much definitely ‘wiser’ as we look to expand the scale of our ambition and enlist more leaders to become fully fledged Research Leads under EBE’s watchful ‘glittering’ eye.

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