The Research Learning Communities (RLC) Programme is a professional development programme that aims to improve the Literacy and Mathematics outcomes of Children in Need (CIN) and Looked After Children (LAC). This is primarily done by supporting school leaders and teachers in primary schools to develop and implement research-informed teaching strategies. The RLC programme is based on a ‘cycle of inquiry’ (Brown and Flood; 2020), which includes planning, implementing, observing, and reflecting on effective teacher practice.
The RLC programme ran between November 2021 and May 2022. 6 primary schools were recruited for the programme, with Subject Leads and Designated Teachers participating in 6 online workshops. These workshops encouraged collaboration and reflection on applying new strategies to teaching practice, which were then intended to be cascaded through the schools.
What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC) commissioned an evaluation of the adapted RLC programme from November 2021-February 2023 through Ipsos UK. This was a qualitative evaluation, deigned to better understand the benefits and potential impacts of the RLC programme on student attainment, the teachers’ knowledge of academic/action research and inform future evaluations.
The evaluation focused on exploring the following questions:
- Evidence of feasibility:
Feasibility was explored in relation to fidelity, differentiation, reach, acceptability and enablers and barriers to implementation.
- Evidence of promise
This was investigated by gathering evidence to support the programme’s causal mechanisms, potential impacts, and unintended consequences.
- Readiness of trial
The evaluation explored the extent to which the programme can be applied as anticipated and the feasibility of scale up to lead to a pilot or a full-scale trial in the future.
The study followed a qualitative design. Observations of the 7 RLC workshops were conducted to explore engagement and participation in delivery and quality. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with participants and delivery staff to understand their experiences, as well as perceived impacts on teacher and pupil outcomes. A total of 5 interviews were conducted between May and October 2023. Qualitative thematic analysis was used.
Evidence of feasibility
There is strong evidence of the intervention’s feasibility. Adherence to the original programme’s plan and ‘cycle of inquiry’ were core components that helped provide targeted support to CIN/LAC. Schools and teachers valued the programme’s focus on CIN/LAC and were motivated to take part as a result. The evaluation indicated that programme’s clear and consistent workshop plan, along with its focus on effective change leadership and communities of practice can be replicated for improving teaching practice for vulnerable children. Teachers also valued the opportunity to collaborate, although this was limited by the online format of the workshops. However, further work may be needed to constructively engage teachers who may not be as familiar with research-informed teaching as the sample in this study. The study also found that distributed and shared leadership structures in schools enabled participants to effectively circulate teaching strategies and facilitate delivery. A key enabler to the programme would then be having a ‘research-friendly’ culture and leadership structure in place as seen in the schools in this study.
Evidence of promise
The study found evidence of promise supporting the causal mechanisms and potential impacts of the programme. Teachers were able to successfully implement research-informed teaching strategies and improve their attitudes to the use of research. Specifically, skills such as pre-teach, and coaching support were beneficial for participants. The RLC programme also had a positive impact on professional development among teachers. Anecdotal evidence showed that after the intervention, students were more focused and able to engage with the learning immediately. Additionally, the evidence also indicated that learning social and emotional skills through the programme could lead to long-term learning benefits for students. Teachers also interpreted that that the RLC programme led to improve concentration in lessons and better personal skills with peers and teachers. There were no unintended consequences or negative effects of the RLC programme for teachers or CIN/LAC.
Readiness for trial
The evaluation indicated some uncertainty on the feasibility of a trial. Engagement in this programme and the workshops may have been limited by issues with staff and school resources and demanding workloads, as well as recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under recruitment and high attrition impacted the implementation of the RLC programme, with four of the original six schools withdrawing before completion. There were also low response rates to the teacher questionnaires. There were some challenges in securing buy-in from school leadership, indicating uncertainties around whether the strategies may be sustainable after the programme ends. Other channels for recruitment must be considered in future impact evaluations to increase the reach of the programme, as well as adopting a whole-school approach going forward.
Based on the perceptions of delivery staff and workshop participants, several practical recommendations were made.
- Sharing workshop slides, activities, and readings with participants ahead of each workshop to increase participants’ ability to share ideas.
- Providing hard copies of reading materials to encourage engagement among schools of non-participant staff.
- Including participating schools directly in the set-up of the workshops to increase their engagement.
- Exploring ways to increase collaboration in online environments.
Additionally, if the intervention and evaluation are to be replicated, recruiting enough schools must be a priority to generate sufficient sample sizes for measuring outcomes. This could be done by exploring higher levels of incentives for participating schools or using recruitment agencies. The wider environment that schools are operating in must also be considered given time constraints and pressures to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Future research could include other methods of data collection such as pre-and post-teacher questionnaires, administrative data on pupil outcomes and interviews with virtual school heads. A comparative cost evaluation would also be fruitful.