Published on: 06 Sep 2017

How is research informing practice?

Ahead of Saturday’s ResearchEd annual conference, our Senior Publisher, Hilary Fine, summarises some of the findings of the DfE’s research report, Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England, and what it says about how research evidence is informing practice.


Back in August 2014, the DfE commissioned a two-year study to assess progress towards an evidence-informed teaching system where practice is influenced by robust research evidence. Their findings have just been published.

The good news is that there are pockets of progress towards evidence-informed practice, with a third of the schools in the study identified as being highly-engaged with education research. Teaching schools were more strongly engaged than other schools and schools who were most strongly engaged in education research were identified as ‘highly effective’ and ‘well-led organisations’. Leadership was seen to have made research and evidence an integral part of school improvement, with senior leaders creating a climate for continuous improvement, reflection and debate.

Headteachers in highly research-engaged schools shared a view that evidence-informed practice comprises three elements underpinned by a reflective approach:

  • Looking outwards to external research
  • Using school data to identify the ‘problem', consider the relevance of research evidence in relation to context and adapt research evidence to context
  • Evaluating the impact of practice changes made in response to the evidence on outcomes of pupils.

But what about the other two-thirds of schools?

The study found that while most teachers value research evidence, they were not confident in engaging with research directly or feel able to judge its quality. There was also little evidence of teachers importing research into their own practice.

The value placed on research evidence by most teachers was influenced by the value placed on it by senior leaders. Teachers were unlikely to trust research evidence alone, but needed it to be backed up by either own experience through trying it out or the view of a trusted colleague.

It, therefore, follows that teachers who were engaged with research were prompted by school leaders to use research evidence as part of an evidence base to solve a practical problem or to further a school priority and relied on school leaders to facilitate the engagement with evidence.

Evidence vs research

Researchers also encountered a wide interpretation of the terms ‘evidence’ and ‘research’. If ‘evidence’ includes school-level data and reading magazine articles about teaching, then almost every teacher is conducting evidence-informed practice.

Quite rightly, the study, therefore, called for a tighter definition of ‘evidence’ and ‘research’, where ‘evidence’ means seeking out and using quantitative and qualitative research findings generated by external researchers. This evidence will then be combined with other sources of expertise and knowledge and transformed in use.

The study also analysed the extent to which evidence is discussed in the public domain, including government policy documents, school websites and social media outputs. Policy organisations other than the DfE were seen to produce more in the area of research evidence and school leaders and teachers were more likely to look towards these organisations for research evidence.

Yet while the websites of teaching schools demonstrated a commitment to evidence use on their websites over time, the vast majority of randomly selected school websites displayed no engagement with evidence and this picture didn’t change between years one and two of the study.

More work is being done here already. Not least, the study reiterated the recommendations of the Education Excellence Everywhere White Paper (DfE 2016) which set out proposals to support the Chartered College of Teaching in expanding the Education Endowment Fund remit to include evidence-informed teaching. This, in turn, will help incentivise researchers to produce research that can improve practice.

The Government has also announced a £75 million in a Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund to support high-quality, evidence-informed, professional development for teachers and school leaders in the areas of the country that were seen to need it most.

The vital role of school leaders

The study found that evidence can and does inform teachers’ thinking and practice. But a running theme throughout the paper was that school leaders’ capacity and commitment for engagement with research was key to secure evidence-informed schools and practice.

Leadership needs to embed research evidence at a whole school level by ensuring evidence engagement is a collaborative process, integrating it into CPD activity and allowing time for reflection on the impact of the strategies within their school.

Importantly, the report also acknowledged that we also need to see the impact. We need to know more about how evidence can shift teacher practice and what impact this has on pupil outcomes. Only then do I think that we’ll see true engagement with research in schools.


Hilary Fine is hosting a panel session with Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick, Summer Turner and Chris Dale at the ResearchED conference on 9 September: ‘Putting Research into Practice’ – 3.55pm, Room 5115. Find out more at