Evidence-based school leadership

A veteran of speaking about evidence, Gary Jones flags up some concerns he has about the difficulty of leading a school in an evidence- informed way that is also meaningfully and, crucially, has an impact that matters.

The first researchED event I attended was the London national conference in September 2014. Without doubt, this was some of the most inspiring and influential professional development I had experienced in the 30 years I had been involved in education. It was inspiring because I was taking part in an event with over 1000 teachers who had given up a Saturday morning to speak and listen about something they cared about – namely, improving teaching and learning though the appropriate use of research evidence. It was influential in that it got me thinking, reading and writing about evidence-based school leadership and management.

researchED London 2014 got me thinking about evidence-based school leadership and management for two reasons. First, the vast majority of the sessions at the event had a focus on teaching and learning and little attention seemed to be paid to the role of research and other sources of evidence in the decision-making of senior leaders in schools. Second, that summer I had by chance read an article by Adrian Furnham(1) which introduced me to the discipline of evidence-based management and I was intrigued as to whether there was a possible synthesis with evidence-based education. This contributed to me writing a book – Evidence-based School Leadership and Management: a practical guide – and 220 blogposts (www.garyrjones.com/blog).

We need to have an honest conversation about teachers’ research literacy and their subsequent abilities to make research- informed changes in their practice.

So having written around 300,000 words on all things evidence-based, I would like to make the following observations about the current state of evidence-based practice within schools. First, the ‘evidence-based movement’ is not going away any time soon. We have 22 schools in the Research Schools Network; an increasing number of schools appointing schools research leads; hundreds if not thousands of educational bloggers contributing to discussions about how to improve education; social media and EduTwitter providing a forum for the articulation of views; over 20 researchED conferences scheduled for 2019; the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) spending over £4m in 2017–18 to fund the delivery of 17 projects, involving 3620 schools and other educational settings reaching approximately 310,000 children and young people(2); and finally, we have Ofsted using research evidence to inform their inspection framework (3).

Nevertheless, despite all this time, effort and commitment being put into research and evidence-based practice, there is still much to ensure evidence-based practice contributes to improved outcomes for pupils. First, we need to have an honest conversation about teachers’ research literacy and their subsequent abilities to make research-informed changes in their practice. Research undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational and the EEF suggests that teachers have a weak variable knowledge of the evidence-based relating to teaching and learning and have a particularly weak understanding of research requiring scientific or specialist knowledge (4). Second, there is a distinction between the rhetoric and the reality of evidence-based practice within schools. Research undertaken for the Department for Education identified a number of schools where headteachers and senior leaders ‘talked a good game’ about evidence-informed teaching within their schools, whereas the reality was that research and evidence was not embedded within the day-to-day practice of the school (5). Third, it’s important to be aware there is a major debate taking place amongst educational researchers about randomised controlled trials, effect sizes, meta-analyses. Indeed, as Professor Rob Coe states: ‘Ultimately, the best evidence we currently have may well be wrong; it is certainly likely to change.’(6)

And finally, if I were to offer any advice to teachers, school leaders and governors/trustees who are interested in evidence-based practice, it would be the following. Becoming an evidence-based practitioner is hard work. It doesn’t happen by just reading the latest EEF guidance document, John Hattie’s Visible Learning or by spending one Saturday morning a year at a researchED conference. It requires a career-long moral commitment to challenging both your own and others’ practice, critically examining ‘what works’ to ensure whatever actions you take bring about improvements in pupil outcomes.

Dr Gary Jones is the author of Evidence-Based School Leadership and Management: a practical guide. Prior to his recent work – in blogging, speaking and writing about evidence-based practice – Gary worked in the further education sector and has over 30 years of experience in education as a teacher and senior leader. Gary is currently engaged by the University of Portsmouth as a researcher on projects looking at area-based reform and increasing socialmobility.

Further reading:

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

Barends, E. and Rosseau, D. (2018) Evidence-based management: how to use evidence to make better organizational decisions. London: Kogan-Page.

Cain, T. (2019) Becoming a research-informed school. London: Routledge.

Jones, G. (2018) Evidence-based school leadership and management: a practical guide. London: SAGE Publishing.

Kvernbekk, T. (2016) Evidence-based practice in education: functions of evidence and causal presuppositions. London. Routledge.

1. Furnham, A. (2014) On your head: a magic bullet for motivating staff?, The Sunday Times, 13 July.
2. Education Endowment Foundation (2018) EEF annual report 2018. London: EEF. Available at: www.bit.ly/2Iw9ajY
3. Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: overview of research. London: The Stationery Office. Available at: www.bit.ly/31hVQbN
4. Nelson, J., Mehta, P., Sharples, J. and Davey, C. (2017) Measuring teachers’ research engagement: findings from a pilot study: report and executive summary. London: Education Endowment Foundation/ NFER.
5. Coldwell, M., Greany, T., Higgins, S., Brown, C., Maxwell, B., Stiell, B., Stoll, L., Willis, B. and Burns, H. (2017) Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England. Department for Education. London: The Stationery Office.
6. Coe, R. (2018) ‘What should we do about meta-analysis and effect size?’, CEMblog [Blog]. Available at: www.bit.ly/2ZcWm96