One of the great headaches for education researchers is gaining access to schools to conduct research. Even after the necessary ethics approvals and jurisdiction permissions, that is permissions from school authorities, have been gained, researchers will often encounter problems with recruiting sufficient schools.
But what is this process like for schools? When school leaders receive requests to take part in research, what makes them say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? And what are schools looking for in a research project? As part of our Understanding School Engagement in Research (USER) project, these were the kinds of questions that we recently explored with staff in 67 Melbourne primary, secondary and special schools.
Analysis of the responses from schools in the USER project, alongside similar international studies, provide some important pointers for researchers who are looking to conduct research in and with schools.
Above all, this work highlights how selective school leaders now have to be about getting involved in research projects.
On average, the school leaders in the Understanding School Engagement in Research project reported saying ‘No’ to 4 out of 5 research requests per year, and ‘Yes’ to 1 in 5 requests per year. The reasons given for agreeing were strongly consistent across schools and suggest four action points for researchers looking to maximise their chances of getting positive responses from schools.
1. Make explicit links to school-level priorities
The two most frequent reasons for schools agreeing to participate in a research project were ‘it links to an area of need in school improvement plan’ (88%) and ‘the topic is of interest to staff, students, and/or families’ (79%). Similarly, when asked to describe a ‘good’ research project, respondents talked about a strong alignment with school priorities, and clear relevance to improving student learning.
2. Make reasonable and clear demands of schools
When it came to school leaders saying ‘No’ to research projects, the top two reasons given were ‘demand on school is too great’ (93%) and ‘timing not right’ (93%). Likewise, in interviews, participants described ‘not so good’ research projects as ones that involve too much time and/or make too many demands. They stressed the need for research requests to include clear and up-front information about what would be required of schools and the likely time demands.
3. Offer school-specific feedback
The third most frequently-cited reason for school leaders agreeing to take part in research projects was ‘We believe that research will produce tangible outcomes e.g. school-specific report’ (77%). They stressed the need for project findings and implications to be communicated in formats that are easy for schools to access, engage with and enact. One of the common frustrations reported by respondents in the USER study was not being offered (or not receiving) any school-specific feedback.
4. Include a capacity-building dimension
Another important characteristic of research projects that appealed to schools was the inclusion of some kind of capacity-building component. School leaders were more likely to agree to research requests if they had a focus on improving teacher capabilities and/or student learning. Perhaps not surprisingly, schools prefer research projects that involve not just data collection but also professional learning. Schools want to know ‘What’s in it for us?’ and are appreciative of tangible benefits such as staff professional learning workshops and sessions for students.
None of the above suggestions are especially novel. Indeed, similar advice has been given within the field of education research for many years.
The significance of the four points raised in our study, however, lies in the fact that they would seem to be far from standard practice in the requests that schools are currently receiving from researchers. This seems like a significant missed opportunity when viewed against the backdrop of calls for improved engagement and impact by researchers.
Mark Rickinson is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University in Melbourne. Mark’s work is focused on improving the use and usefulness of educational research in policy and practice. He is currently leading a new 5-year initiative (The Q Project) to improve the use of research evidence in Australian schools.
Shani Prendergast is the Senior Research Analyst at Catholic Education Melbourne, responsible for developing and implementing the jurisdiction’s research strategy. Shani has worked in education (the schooling sector) for 19 years across a variety of function areas, but in recent years her research and professional interests are in school effectiveness, research engagement and evidence use.