AN EXEMPLAR PROJECT Working with schools serving high-need communities

The project

The TRANSFORM project presented in this chapter is an exemplar of how universities and schools work together for a shared purpose of improving the learning and achievement of children, especially those in socio-economically disadvantaged urban contexts. The project, funded by the ESRC, represented a social learning platform, connecting school leaders and university staff so that they were able both to share academic, experiential and professional knowledge, learn from one another, apply that learning to co-create innovative approaches to improve practice in schools, and also, broaden and deepen the horizon of possibilities for future research and understanding.

The project was set up in the form of a ‘knowledge transfer and exchange’ partnership between a research-intensive university, five primary schools and a secondary academy from within a ‘Teaching School Alliance’ which largely consisted of schools serving socio-economically disadvantaged urban communities. These partnerships were framed by a ‘research-in-use’ agenda in which accumulated academic knowledge was ‘brokered’ by school principals and other senior leaders of research-led professional learning and development activities in school settings. The project activities included school-based meetings, university-based workshops and school-led projects over a one-year period. The university team of three academics adopted the role of research-informed ‘critical friends’ (see Chapter 5), working closely with the principals in processes of needs identification, designing and enacting their leadership of school-based research and development groups.

There are two complementary benefits of this way of working:

1. academic knowledge produced outside the school is able to influence leaders’ and teachers’ practical and professional knowledge produced through their experiences inside the school (McLaughlin et al., 2007; Townsend, 2014); and

2. academic knowledge and understanding is enriched and extended through the ways in which it is used to interact with a variety of classroom and school contexts.

The aims of this project, then, were to connect the worlds of academic research and the practice worlds of school-based educators by:

  • 1. engaging in an ongoing dialogue with schools to enable academic research and evidence to be accessed, interrogated, in ways that challenge existing knowledge of school leaders and the ways in which they make sense of this in practice situations; and
  • 2. developing a research and development leadership role by participating school principals working with their teachers, in order that they would extend their roles and capabilities both as knowledge producers and users of that knowledge in order to improve practice.

The project had three central objectives:

  • • To combine knowledge produced by academics with knowledge produced by principals in order to co-construct new knowledge on the effective leadership of student learning and achievement in a secondary academy, and primary schools serving disadvantaged urban communities.
  • • To achieve this through the sustained engagement of academics with school principals in the design and enactment of research and development projects. These focused on specific topics related to school improvement needs identified by the school principals in consultation with their teachers.
  • • To document the working processes, professional learning and development activities and their impact on principals and teachers.

To achieve these objectives, a key role of the university team was to provide and discuss with the principals a range of academically produced knowledge appropriate to the needs of the different schools’ projects. In so doing, the team aimed to combine the transfer of findings of research about education (knowledge transfer) with the participants’ knowledge in education, enabling the leaders to develop and test a common stock of shared understandings through collaborative research and development (knowledge exchange and utilisation). The academic knowledge was drawn from five areas, determined by what was agreed by the principals to be relevant to the school projects which they had identified.

  • 1. Knowledge of professional learning and development strategies for capacity building. Research over the last ten years has shown that capacity-building processes have made significant contributions to teacher and school effectiveness (Hal-linger and Heck, 2010; Sammons, 2008); that there are associations between teachers’ capacities for improvement and their experience of regular informal and formal and sustained professional learning and development for both organisational functional, and individual ‘person-centred’ purposes (see Chapter 6 for a more extensive discussion) and that the levels of support provided by school leaders influence, positively or negatively, these associations (Day and Gu, 2010; Day et al., 2007; Leithwood et al., 2006a).
  • 2. Knowledge of teachers’ work, lives and effectiveness. Research has found that there are associations between teachers’ capacities for improvement and their sense of commitment, identity and resilience (Day and Gu, 2009; Gu and Day, 2007). A large-scale mixed methods national project on variations in teachers’ work, lives and effectiveness in England (Day et al., 2007) found strong quantitative and qualitative associations between teacher commitment and their classroom effectiveness and the important influence of leadership on this (Day and Gu, 2009). Pupils of teachers who were committed to teach to their best and were resilient in doing so were more likely to perform well academically. Conversely, pupils of teachers who felt vulnerable and ‘stuck’ in the profession were less likely to achieve their academic potential (Day and Gu, 2007; Gu, 2014; Gu and Day, 2007). To support teachers effectively over the course of their professional lives, it is necessary to know that their professional learning needs vary at different times in their working lives and that they do not necessarily become more effective with age or experience. We argue that ‘just as the best teaching “personalizes” students’ learning agendas, so the best professional learning and structures and cultures will differentiate between the learning agendas of teachers in order to sustain their commitment, resilience and effectiveness which are fundamental to classroom and school effectiveness and improvement’ (Day and Gu, 2007; 441).
  • 3. Knowledge of successful leadership. Research on effective and improving schools has found that leadership is second only to classroom teaching in its influence on pupil achievement and that ‘transformational’ leaders exercise three kinds of influence — direct, indirect and reciprocal (Leithwood et al., 2006b). Leaders who build and sustain success invest heavily in professional learning and development (Robinson et al., 2009), often through situated learning (Wenger, 1998), and in developing trust in growing and sustaining cultures of professional development which result in improvement (Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Day et al., 2011; Leithwood, 2019; Louis, 2007).
  • 4. Knowledge of collaborative research principles and practices. Evidence-informed teacher enquiries and joint practice development within and between schools are seen as an impetus for teachers’ professional learning and development, and through this, whole-school improvement. Sharpies argues that:

perhaps one of the most significant shifts over the last ten years in relation to practitioners’ use of research has been the realisation that simply passively disseminating research - ‘packaging and posting’ - is unlikely to have a significant impact on people’s behaviours.

(Sharpies, 2013: 18)

  • 5. School-university partnerships as research and development communities are believed to have much to offer to this culture shift (Gu, 2016b). Much has been written about the need for a mindset shift in schools which fosters learning cultures that are enquiry-oriented and evidence-informed, so that schools are able to adapt research evidence to suit their specific contexts, and add to their local knowledge that informs decision-making and improvement in practice (e.g. Levin, 2010; Petty, 2006; Scott and McNeish, 2013). It is only when school leaders make it a priority that research-practice partnerships between schools and universities can be used as external sources of support (Levin, 2010), that joint learning and research and development communities can become sustainable, and most importantly, that such influences on the thinking and development practices of teachers can be long-term. This is because, at least in part, school leaders who create cultural and structural conditions which enable joint research and development partnerships through these are able to develop collective and organisational capacity, and spread and sustain practice change (Campbell and Levin, 2012). However, despite a growing number of publications which extol the virtues of school-university projects over the last 50 years, there has been little detailed, explicit consideration of the roles of school principals in encouraging and participating in schooluniversity project work.
  • 6. Knowledge of successful schools serving disadvantaged communities. All schools in England are regularly inspected, and the results of their students regularly scrutinised. This is a high stakes version of accountability in which failure to achieve the required results can result in serious consequences (de Wolf and Janssens, 2007; West, 2010). Many (though not all) inner-city schools, serving economically impoverished communities, tend to find themselves achieving relatively lower results than other schools, placing them lower down the league tables of performance and so under closer scrutiny of the inspectorate (Wrigley, 2007). The consequence of this is that in responding to unfavourable external judgements of levels of student progress and achievement, whilst at the same time responding to extreme ‘outrages’ from individuals and families within the communities which they serve, providing additional time and resource in responding to extreme emotional and learning challenges of students in the classroom, and managing disruptive parental behaviours which would not usually be associated with schools serving more advantaged communities, is likely to deplete the energy, morale and commitment of teachers and principals themselves. These and other research studies have shown, also, that in facing these challenges, leaders and teachers in schools which serve disadvantaged urban communities face a unique set of challenges with regard to promoting equity, managing pupil behaviour, and raising levels of pupil achievement. They require additional context-specific qualities, capacities and skills to be effective (Chapman, 2005; Day and Johansson, 2008; Gu and Johansson, 2015; Ylimaki and Jacobson, 2011).

In an important but largely unheralded book, Chris Chapman identified four key principles of successful external intervention when working with schools serving socio-economically disadvantaged communities. He claimed that, ‘These core principles must be central to external intervention if outside agencies are to be able to claim improvement through intervention’ (Chapman, 2005: 146).

  • 1 Appropriate design Interventions must adhere to a design based on appropriate levels of challenge/support for improvement, top-down/bottom-up change and internal/external dynamism or drive to meet their purpose.
  • 2 Context specificity Interventions must also be sensitive to local needs and flexible enough to support improvement in schools at different stages of development, exhibiting diverse cultural typologies, structures and perhaps, most importantly, differential capacities for change.
  • 3 Change at all levels Meaningful areas for change must be identified at all levels within schools. Appropriate levers must then be used to facilitate the changes with the aid of specialised local knowledge. Space must be created within these schools to develop confidence and a risk-taking culture where staff and students are comfortable in experimenting with their practice.
  • 4 Sustained support In order to generate sustainable improvements the interventions must focus on developing on-going relationships between schools and external agencies that provide support to facilitate the change process. External interventions must move beyond providing accurate diagnosis to a situation where individualised ongoing support is provided to move the organisation forward.
  • (Chapman, 2005: 145-6)
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