Yr Athrofa has been supporting schools across South Wales to undertake close-to-practice research in their own classrooms. Here, in the first of a series of blogs, Jonathan Davies from Treorchy Comprehensive School explains his involvement in the ‘Research Schools’ project


Treorchy Comprehensive School (TCS) is set in the Rhondda Valley and serves a diverse rural community and the surrounding valleys. There are currently 1606 pupils on roll with just under 400 pupils in the 6th Form and up to 180 staff, of which 98 are teaching staff. Around 25% of pupils are eligible for free school meals and roughly 41% of pupils live in the 20% most deprived areas in Wales. For many years, the school, led by a highly dedicated and inspirational headteacher, has been at the forefront of education in Wales securing excellent grades in the last three recent Estyn inspections. In each of these, various strategies have been noted as sector leading (eg. Bilingualism, the Pastoral system and Partnership to name a few).

Rationale

Close to practice research is evolving into one of the key tools for supporting whole school development and improvement. The reasons for this are twofold; staff are able to develop their own professional development and pupils benefit in being taught and supported by well-resourced members of staff, all in line with the National Mission. This blog focuses on a research project in which teacher educators and classroom practitioners collaborated in close-to-practice research studies to consider Wellbeing of staff and pupils at the school.

As a Lead school within the Athrofa: Professional Learning Partnership (APLP), we (TCS) were given an opportunity for the school to be part of the development of research (within schools) linked to the development of the new programme for Teacher Education. This was a recommendation in John Furlong’s ‘Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers’ report. This report also included:

  • Teachers and teacher educators should engage with research, not only as discerning consumers, but also as capable of conducting their own enquiries;
  • Eessential that schools and universities collaborate in relation to teacher training and development.

Working in partnership with the APLP, the following were implemented to support staff in developing a research technique:

  • University lecturer paired with each school;
  • Learning conversations based around;
  • Purposes of research;
  • Research design;
  • Ethics;
  • Literature reviews;
  • Data analysis/coding.

The Research Project
The school strongly believes all pupils need the skills of independence and interdependence to achieve their success both in school and in the future. Pupils must be provided with support and tuition in developing these skills along with opportunities to develop these skills within the school day. These skills have been at the forefront of the School Improvement Plan (SIP) for the last few years and most recently, there have been significant changes made to the school week and curriculum to support this vision. During the academic year 2017-18, the following two strategies were implemented to support both staff and pupil wellbeing along with developing independent behaviours of pupils.

1.The asymmetric week

The asymmetric week is a two week timetable with increased hours Monday to Thursday and a shorter day on Friday.  Over the two week period, one Friday allows staff to attend department and leadership meetings which also includes opportunities for continued professional development. The second Friday offers staff the opportunity to leave school early (90min) which could include; attending the gym, having a long weekend, collecting children from school, completing work ahead of the weekend etc. Furthermore, the development of the asymmetric week, where lessons have been reduced by 5 minutes, has enabled the implementation of ‘Prep’ three times a week for pupils in Years 7 to 11.

2.Development of Prep at Key Stages 3 & 4 (to develop independent and interdependent skills)

Prep has been designed for pupils to develop their independent and interdependent skills within the curriculum. The Prep sessions are aimed at developing such skills as resilience, independence and interdependence through various activities, while also offering time for pupils to start homework, research topics and update themselves on current affairs through reading newspapers and use of technologies. The design of Prep also provides a ‘wrap around’ support for pastoral needs within each year group as the Learning Coaches (Form Tutors) meet their group each morning and last lesson every other day to provide this bespoke lesson. The lessons are all led and supported by trained Learning Coaches, who are provided with resources and plans for the weekly lessons.  

Within the research project, a team of staff, appointed from a range of departments and including differences in experience, considered:

  1. what the perceived impact has been on pupils and staff of the new asymmetric week;
  2.  how pupils have developed their independent skills over the last two years and;
  3. to what extent are those changes related to the significant strategic changes implemented.

What have we learnt?

As a school, we were very new to research and soon after starting the project, we realised the size of the task planned. The focus was initially a year but we soon realised the need to extend the project over two years. This was to allow the research to have a set of baseline data, mid-project data and a final set. This then allowed us to consider any impact. The team of staff all volunteered for the project and were keen to learn and be part of this collaborative project with the University. By the end, there was representation from five out of the six Areas of Learning experience.

Undertaking such a project included some challenges. These included:

  • Allocation of time (funding of staff to complete the data collections and analyse results);
  • Working with a significant size school (Pupils and Staff) – consider focus group size and regularity of meeting;
  • Understanding and working with data at a research level – coding;
  • Preparation of and completion of Ethical forms;
  • Discounting any pre-conceived ideas and being completely impartial.

One substantial challenge was change of staff both within the team and within the school. This was generally associated with promotions to other schools. This had an effect on both the data collected and those involved in the project itself. However, the gaps left by some of the staff in the project were soon filled by enthusiastic and willing staff who had been involved in the project in other ways. In many ways this gave a real fresh opportunity for all to have a re-set and new focus for the second year.

Considering all the above, the Project ran very smoothly and through a team of dedicated and committed staff, along with excellent support from the APLP, we were able to draw conclusions and recommendation from the key questions posed. As in any good project, appropriate timelines, excellent communication and clear rationale provided the basis for the work.

One of the main conclusions to the project was that research doesn’t have to be a large-scale piece of work. It must though fall in line with clear procedures and expectations and prior to starting a project the following questions should be considered:

  • Why are we doing it?
  • What will we gain from it?
  • Who will benefit from it?

If all the above will provide continued development and opportunities for all stakeholders in the school, then it is the right thing to do.

Next steps

As a result of our involvement in this research project, and in line with the design of the Curriculum for Wales, the school is taking opportunities to support close to practise research through the  development of other projects to look at such areas as:

  • The development of the Expressive Arts Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE);
  • Assessment for Learning (AfL) across the school;
  • The impact of homework on the learner.

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