Research during a pandemic 2: How has our research in pre-16 education gone this summer?

Blog posts

2 Sep 2021

Anneka DawsonAnneka Dawson, Principal Research Fellow 

Spoiler alert- actually not too bad at all!

In January as we plunged into a third lockdown, I wrote about the five ongoing interventions IES was leading in the early years, and how we had worked with the delivery teams to adapt how the projects were evaluated and supplied. Now the new term is starting we can reflect on the last year and see what made these projects work (one has already been published, here) and how that learning can help research be more resilient in the future.

Commitment of school and nursery staff

The superhero-like determination and perseverance we have seen from school and nursery staff in the 2020/21 school year cannot be overstated, and this is one of the key reasons that projects have continued to be possible. More than ever, these groups of individuals were looking for ways to help support children in their care in ways to ‘catch-up’ from all the lost learning from missing time in their normal settings (see Education Policy Institute research, 2021). Research has shown that the youngest children have been badly affected both socially and in language and academic achievement (Sutton Trust, 2021). Therefore, after predicting 15-20% drop out (attrition) for testing back in January, we have actually seen lower attrition from some of our research projects this year than we normally would have expected in an average year. For example, on one large scale education trial we have seen attrition of only about 7%.  This is astonishing given all that nurseries and schools have had to deal with and really shows how committed the staff are to helping these children.

‘Keep in touch’ mechanisms

Aside from adapting the content of programmes so they have been online where possible, project delivery teams have also been working incredibly hard to ensure that nursery and school staff stay engaged with the projects. This has included a variety of methods such as:

  • Monthly newsletters sharing best practice from other schools in how to implement the intervention in their setting. These also included an update on project evaluation progress with reminders of forthcoming activities.
  • One project team used regular text messages with their participants, including prompts about what to try that week in their settings to keep them finding new ways of using the project materials.
  • Project teams also used virtual meetings or regular telephone calls to keep in touch with staff more than originally planned, which worked better than having a dedicated phone number and email address to contact if staff needed to. So, a proactive rather than reactive approach from the teams was better received.

Communities of practice

Communities of practice were used in several projects in excitingly different ways. A community of practice is defined by Wenger-Traynor (who coined the term) as ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’. They have been used in education research for some time and a large recent trial includes the EEF’s Research Learning Communities project (Rose et al, 2017) which found evidence that they improved teachers’ engagement with research. A couple of the projects we have worked with this year ran virtual group sessions for nursery staff to get together and share their experiences as well as focusing on delivering specific themed content that was new, thus promoting engagement.

Another project used a learning platform where teachers could upload examples of how they had developed their own materials based on the project handbook, the delivery team could share new resources and a forum where they could share questions and answers. Finding new and innovative ways of keeping in touch with nursery and school practitioners that do not require them to be logged on to an email (many nursery practitioners do not have work email addresses) or to a computer (something that is easily accessible on a smartphone), or to have to travel for a distance (when staff cover is expensive and sometimes difficult to find) are important considerations for future projects.

As we continue to analyse the data and write up the findings from the research, we also begin new research projects with a new context and a fresh approach to improving both delivery and evaluation. Crucial to making all of this research successful is an open, regular and honest communication approach between the evaluation and delivery teams. This has been a huge success over the last eighteen months as we have taken on a common enemy of the pandemic and I am very grateful to the teams we work with for sharing what has worked well and what has really struggled in projects over this time, more than ever. We will update you on the launch of these new projects over the next few months.  

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.