Tom Fellows

Author: Tom Fellows

16/09/2016 14:54:53

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Every year since 2013 educational researchers, policy makers and practitioners have come together at the teacher-led National ResearchED conference to showcase the latest policy, research and practice in the world of education. These events are often not accessible to governors and trustees despite consisting of topical and interesting debates and research. To share these useful discussions, Fay Holland (NGA’s Policy and Information Officer) and Tom Fellows (NGA’s Research and Information Officer) attended the sessions most useful for governors and trustees.

Given recent government announcements, grammar schools emerged as a major point of debate throughout the day. The key note speech given by minister for school standards Nick Gibb focused on making research accessible for teachers, but the majority of questions were around academic selection. As this event came before Monday’s consultation, Mr Gibb was unable to comment widely on grammar school proposals.

Education DataLab’s Dr Becky Allen led a session which focused exclusively on grammar schools. Dr Allen’s analysis highlighted that a system with selection at 11 always impedes social mobility. Drawing upon quantitative data, she showed how academic selection only compounds inequalities because poorer children struggle to pass the eleven plus, not only because they cannot afford private tuition, but because disadvantaged children have lower attainment at age 11 in comparison to their peers. Dr Allen also explained how teacher supply and retention is easier in grammar schools, with secondary moderns more likely to have less experienced and less qualified teachers who are more likely to leave the profession.

In another session, Dr Tim Leunig, Chief Analyst at the Department for Education, discussed how ministers use evidence in making decisions and advised attendees on how to make their voices heard on issues such as this. Dr Leunig said that consultation responses will always be taken seriously by government and that ministers are much more inclined to listen to those backed up by compelling evidence. Dr Leunig finished his session by defending the prime ministers speech on grammar schools, stating that all government speeches and publications are rigorously fact checked before going public. 

Incoming Ofsted HMCI, Amanda Spielman, was also in the spotlight. Ms Spielman welcomed advice on her new role from a panel of experts as well as members of the audience. Many highlighted areas where clarity or consistency could be improved, with some creative solutions offered – including schools inviting inspectors in only if they disagreed with the conclusion of a data analysis. Following on from the session with Ms Spielman, Sean Harford, Ofsted director of schools, was interviewed by Andrew Old.  Answering a question on how well inspectors know governance, Mr Harford stated that inspectors are now receiving training on understanding group structures and governance in MATs and federations. NGA welcomes this development and has previously raised concerns when some inspection reports have clearly shown a distinct lack of understanding from Ofsted on governance structures in MATs.

Policy was not the only focus of the day, with many more sessions on the latest academic and sector-led research. The latest NFER teacher retention research, covered in detail on NGA’s research page, was discussed.  The findings provoked a lively discussion among the teachers and researchers present as they sought answers to some of the questions raised: why are science teachers more likely to leave the profession than maths teachers and what do we know about the ambitions and aspirations of young teachers? Many attendees also picked up on the importance of relationships between staff – difficult colleagues were a bigger issue for many leaving the profession than difficult pupils! This is an issue that governing boards and headteachers can make a big contribution to setting the tone.  Some delegates expressed surprise that the fifth most important factor for retaining staff was having an effective governing board.

How to improve education for disadvantaged pupils was a theme of several sessions. One such session, led by the Social Mobility Commission, discussed its upcoming report on the relationship between ethnicity, gender, poverty and educational attainment. The researchers found that although some groups "have created impressive educational results, they are not translating into labour market success". In particular the report outlined that black Caribbean boys face “unconscious bias” in the classroom, higher exclusion rates and a disproportionality concerning SEND; Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupil groups (particularly Muslim girls) are likely to succeed in education, but are also likely to face an "ethnic penalty" and discrimination in the job market; and although girls attain higher than boys across school, boys are more likely to take science, technology, economics and maths subjects at A level and attain higher grades.

In another session on improving education for disadvantaged pupils, Natalie Perera of the Education Policy Institute gave a summary of their recent research into sponsored academies. Drawing on her background working on funding at the Department for Education, she discussed the difficulty of finding an accurate measure of deprivation – in an ideal world, she said, the pupil’s mother’s education and the number of books in the home would be used instead of free school meal eligibility!  Later in the day, Philippa Cordingley of the Centre for the Use of Research & Evidence in Education (CUREE) discussed how schools serving vulnerable communities can be turned around. She argued that schools which had sustained positive momentum tend to focus on coherence, invest time into curriculum development, and take a professional approach to CPD.

Throughout the day, there were other sessions which touched upon issues facing governors and trustees. In one, Alex Pett, educational consultant, talked about changing the culture in schools through tackling established norms. Mr Pett wisely stated that “if you have new strategy you need new execution  ... old execution delivers old strategy”, before commenting on how difficult it is to change people’s mind-sets in order to change the culture of a workplace. He said that “as you identify the current norms – be specific about the strong patterns of behaviour … then be clear about how these norms are established … [and] … be clear on the negative impact of this”. In changing norms and establishing future change, Alex concluded that schools will need to be explicit on the new norms and behaviour they expect, how they can identity and drive these norms (i.e. reward good behaviour) and be clear about how these norms will have a positive impact in a school.

Dr Gary Jones led a session on evidence based school leadership and management. He described four sources of evidence which contribute to good decision making: research, organisational data, stakeholders’ values and concerns, and professional experience and judgement. His argument was that schools are neglecting evidence based management and that its effective use could bring about improvements in both pupil outcomes and staff wellbeing. 

Also on the topic of leadership, David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust ran a session rebuking Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments that schools need more “battle-axe” and “bruiser” leaders. Drawing upon academic and sector-led research studies, Weston said that there was little evidence to show that “battle-axe” leaders can transform a school. Instead, they can often invoke passive resistance and hostility amongst staff and create a negative culture within a school. Instead, Mr Weston said that leaders were much more likely to be successful if they work with others and develop a vision for the school; manage and organise the school effectively; lead professional learning; and develop system capacity within their organisation.

Presentations from these sessions and many others are available on


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