SUPER Resilience & Well-Being Research: preliminary findings from our pupil interviews

The following post by our Teacher Research Lead (TRL) Krista Carson (Soham Village College) summarises some of the preliminary findings from a selection of our pupil interview data – collected by TRLs as part of our collective and collaborative research project  aiming to explore the following research question: ‘How do we promote character, resilience & wellbeing in an educational climate of outcome accountability?’

After meeting with the other Teacher Research Leads (TRL), alongside Bethan and Ros (from the faculty), in March, it was decided that a new blog entry summarising some of the preliminary interview data might be of interest to the wider world. As such, I’m here today to give a quick run-through of our initial thoughts regarding three of the twelve themes we’ve identified whilst coding the interview data. I have chosen these three themes as I (with the help of fellow TRL Anne Barratt from St Ivo School) carefully combed the initial interview data from across the various schools, focusing on these three themes; I therefore feel like I know the material a bit better than some of the other themes.

For interests’ sake, we identified 12 themes (collectively as TRLs and Faculty colleagues) for our analytical coding framework of the interview data:

  •    Involvement in school activities
  •    ‘Success’ –what does it mean?
  •    Exams – pressure (assessment, grades)
  •     Stress/worry
  •     Challenges
  •     Positive about/ Enthusiastic about
  •     Safety/feeling safe
  •     Curriculum issues (explicit and implicit)
  •     Equality issues (treated fairly/how inclusive is school)
  •     Caring – how does school care for you?
  •     Support – where from? Sources of
  •     Resilience

For this summary, I will be looking at the three themes of: involvement in school activities; success – what does it mean; and stress/worry.

Involvement in school activities

Whilst reading through the interview data we were able to find 40 mentions, across both primary and secondary school interview data, of involvement in activities within the school; a further eleven mentions were found of activities done outside of school. This suggests that school is, overwhelmingly, a key place for pupils’ activities.

Overall, Anne and I found it interesting that there appeared to be a split between primary and secondary school students’ involvement in school activities. The majority (if not all) of the primary school students interviewed said that they were involved in some sort of extra-curricular activity, either within school itself or outside of school.

Primary students mentioned a wide variety of in-school activities on offer to them. These included: ‘arts and crafts’; ‘football’; ‘after school club’; ‘running club’; ‘rugby’; and ‘cookery’. These activities seem to cover a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, and include more than just involvement in sport and academics.

In secondary schools, involvement seems to drop. Within the six secondary schools included in the study thus far, five of the six schools had at least one interview subject who said they had no involvement whatsoever in activities either inside or outside of the school. That being said, each school did have a number of students (either half or above) who said that they did some sort of school activity.

However, it was apparent in the secondary interview data that there was a lack of variety for activities offered within school. Most of the activities mentioned by the secondary students had links to the curriculum (for example, exam revision sessions) or sports. Students mentioned attending things like ‘statistics and extra exam practice’, ‘homework club’ or things like ‘hockey’ and ‘rounders’.

Outside of school, there appears to be more on offer for secondary-aged students; for example, some mentioned ‘horse riding’, ‘piano’, ‘cycling’ and ‘art and origami’. However, these activities are offered outside of school hours, and are therefore usually paid-for activities.

In summary, it appears that students are offered a wider variety of free activities to participate in  during primary school, and that students are keen to be involved in these activities whilst in the early years of their education. However, this appears to drop off once students begin secondary school. This could be because the focus in secondary school changes to activities that link to either the curriculum, and in particular exam revision at Key Stage Four, or sport, which is not appealing to all students.

Success – what does it mean?

Within the interview data, secondary students tended to equate success with getting ‘good’ or ‘high’ grades. Some mentioned specifically ‘doing well’ in exams as being a sign of success. At primary, this was slightly different, with students suggesting that being ‘good’ at something was a sign of success. The concept was therefore more vague to primary students, and much more concrete for students within our secondary schools.

As mentioned above, secondary students largely equated success with ‘positive’ summative outcomes (namely exam success, in the form of high grades). Students often saw having the ‘right answer’ as being the pathway to success (in the form of ‘good grades’). Mention was made of ‘doing well in tests and being confident in lessons’, ‘doing well, especially in exams’, ‘getting good grades’, or ‘achieving target grades’.

The concept of ‘hitting target grades’ came up often in the interview data. This suggests that secondary students are largely aware of the targets that are set for them, and measure their success against these targets.

Interestingly, there was only some mention of how teachers/school can help support students to become successful, which would be an interesting idea to pursue further.

Also, some students appear to equate success with ‘winning’ something, or receiving a reward of some sort. This was not necessarily linked to grades, which again makes it an interesting idea to pursue further.

Across both primary and secondary data, the idea of ‘right versus wrong’ appeared. Students across the Key Stages made correlations between getting things ‘right’ and success. Many students, across the age groups, also mentioned that ‘trying hard’ or ‘trying your best’ was helpful in achieving success. Similarly, some students mentioned that ‘persevering’ could also lead to success, which links in with the overall theme of resilience, which is driving the study.

Finally, the idea that friends can play a role in success appeared across both primary and secondary interview data. For example, one student suggested that they felt successful when ‘people like all my friends [are] around me to help me when I get stuck’.


In the primary school data, children most often felt stressed by friendship or social issues; in some cases, students mentioned separation anxiety from home. These stresses appeared to change once students moved into secondary school. Here, students said they were stressed by things like: exam pressure, namely the desire to get ‘good’ grades; homework; difficult lessons; social and/or friendship issues; performance pressures; and high expectations.

In terms of homework, students mentioned a lack of understanding from, and coordination across, their various subject teachers. This often results in what they describe as ‘too much homework set at the same time’ from across the various curriculum subjects that students in secondary school study. One student mentioned that this often results in ‘piles and piles of [homework] to be completed by the next week’, which leads to high levels of stress. Another student, from a different school, said that because of ‘lots of homework’ they no longer have ‘time to revise’, which adds to their stress levels.

When looking at the subject of difficult lessons, one student mentioned that ‘at times [they] get frustrated ‘cos [they] can’t do the work…or teachers asking [them] to do things [they] can’t’, which led to high stress.

Overall, it appears that at the primary level, students experience stress namely through social tension, whereas at secondary school the amount of stress, and the things which trigger it, seem to grow and expand. Much of the pressure for secondary students appears to come from external pressures, such as exams. Further work is therefore needed to pinpoint how teachers can work with students to find ways to minimize the stress that they feel due to these pressures.

We will share more information about our project and more findings – from our quantitive survey and qualitative pupil interviews – in due course!





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Inspiring Schools Partnerships – the Schools Together Group’s first Annual Conference at Eton College 24th May 2017

Guest Post by:  David Hall (Teacher Research Lead at Samuel Whitbread Academy) and Jennie Richards (Emeritus Teacher Research Lead).  David and Jennie attended this conference on behalf of SUPER. Although all the partnerships presenting at the conference involved  collaborations of schools between state and independent sectors (unlike SUPER), it was to prove a thought provoking and interesting day which enabled us to reflect on our own partnership in new ways.

Keynote speakers at the start of the conference gave context to the growth of cross sector partnerships. Tom Arbuthnott of Eton College, as part of his welcoming speech, distributed a paper titled, “Independent-State School Partnerships:  An initial review of evidence and current practices”. This was produced by Bill Lucas, Louise Stoll, Toby Greany, Anna Tsakalaki and Rebecca Nelson. Bill Lucas then spoke in more detail about the findings of this report. It is available to download from

This document provides both an academic literature review as the context for Independent-State School Partnerships (ISSPs), and a survey of current practice as reported by independent schools. Its conclusions show that not only is there a growing number of ISSPs, but that there is a wide variety of different approaches and foci for the partnerships. There is considerable enthusiasm for ISSPs, but significantly there is “no agreement of what constitutes best practice and we found no ISSPs which are being or have been formally evaluated for their impact or cost/benefit”.

John Weeks from the London Academy of Excellence laid out four key ingredients to successful partnerships of this nature.  He identified:

  • An identified need which could be addressed through partnership and skills matching
  • Financial security for the partnership
  • Academic security, meaning that there was an availability of expertise from specialist staff, mentoring, support, advice and guidance
  • A shared vision from single minded leadership in the partnership

Workshops These ideas were buzzing around in our heads as David and I attended a total of eight workshops out of the fifteen available. These described a range of current programmes covering mainly subject based developments, cross stage projects, teacher training and staff development.

An example of one of the workshops was given by Simon Davies who spoke about establishing a successful and sustainable schools partnership which is focused on:

  1. Working together using people, expertise, enthusiasm and resources
  2. Developing Priorities which inspire, excite and offer opportunities
  3. Being beneficial for young people, staff and schools

His premise centred around five fundamental aspects being essential to success and sustainability.  Firstly there was a need for a clear, agreed, apolitical vision.  Secondly, the people involved and their relationships need to have a commonality of purpose, an agreement for time investment and the important roles filled by the right type of characters to ensure the partnership continues.  Thirdly, there had to be a sustainable structure of meetings where the vision is repeated and cultivated, feedback and evaluations are discussed and resonance sought.  Meetings should also be planned for outreach to widen the scope and effectiveness of the partnership.  Fourthly, funding needs to be taken seriously and whilst schools should be prepared to be involved other sources of local interest and beneficiaries should be sought.  Lastly the management of the partnership needs to focus on transmission, collaboration, win-win-win and consistency.

The final panel discussion session also led to some key reflections for us both as the topic was, “How to measure the impact of school partnerships” which is often a topic of discussion at SUPER. The speakers were:

Speakers shared the view that partnerships need to be evaluated systematically and against previously agreed criteria. An emphasis on rigour and focus, a clear starting point, interim evaluation points and success measures were also necessary. The problems of measuring so called “softer” impacts, such as on resilience, character etc., were discussed as were ways to capture student and teacher perceptions regarding these issues.

Toby Greany emphasised that it is difficult to measure impact over different cultural contexts. He also spoke of the need to acknowledge difficulties and failures. He argued that just meeting measurable targets is insufficient because evaluation should be part of an ongoing improvement agenda, not just an end in itself. Whilst before and after audits can be effective, learning from all stakeholders must be properly evaluated.

Our Reflections. The conference made us consider the nature and impact of our SUPER partnership. We plan to develop a think piece to raise some ideas for discussion within the partnership, particularly regarding best practice, evaluation and cost/benefit analysis.

Having more than one attendee from our partnership proved to be a good way to promote an exchange of ideas and to share our experiences and interpretations of what we experienced. Even though SUPER is not an ISSP, there was much food for thought created as a result of a most interesting and informative day. Thank you to “Schools Together” for organising the conference and to Eton College for hosting the event so successfully. In addition, thanks to all the excellent speakers who contributed greatly to the experience we enjoyed.

David Hall & Jennie Richards

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What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

Guest Post: Jennie Richards

Many thanks to Jennie, our SUPER Emeritus ‘teacher research lead’, for the following summary of the key ideas generated at the recent Research Leads Network Symposium hosted by SUPER on 7th March 2017 (see our previous two blogposts for more information, presentations slides etc.) Thanks also to all symposium participants for your contributions to the ongoing discussion and debate . . .

What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

At the individual school level

  • The need to develop a deep and sustainable research culture (at governor, leadership and staff levels) was seen as key, but also challenging. The following suggestions were given as potential tools:
  • Recognition of the need to change and improve practice based on evidence based knowledge through Teaching and Learning groups.
  • Integrating enquiry into performance management.
  • Encouraging leadership structures and formalised support for groups to be involved in research.
  • Auditing and building on existing expertise in the school.
  • Offering time and possibly money incentives to engage with research (bursaries, Masters etc.)
  • Valuing, acknowledging and rewarding research efforts.
  • Finding ways to make academic literature more accessible. Research should inform as well as engage teachers. Developing opportunities to share and publish findings in practical ways which impact on teaching in the classroom.
  • Encouraging openness, trust, confidence.
  • Offering methodological support.
  • Knowing the appropriate time to launch and build momentum.
  • Mapping research interests across the school.
  • Involving parents and students wherever possible (modelling processes).
  • Creating informal and formal opportunities to share information in a variety of ways, e.g. posters, blogs, journals
  • Encouraging critical debate about evidence and impact


At the research network level

  • Creating the network with appropriate structures to support and sustain involvement.
  • Mapping research interests across the network to find common areas and problems to be addressed
  • Regular meetings of Research Leads from each participant
  • Celebratory information events/conferences
  • Recognising the need for shared communication and archiving structures.
  • Aligning the priorities and values of the members of the partnership.
  • Building non-hierarchical, non-competitive but inclusive, collaborative and trusting relationships.
  • Creating the ability to contextualise research to individual school s.
  • Developing robust, shared research knowledge and tools.
  • Developing good impact and evaluation tools.
  • Recognising problems and issues and sharing potential solutions.
  • Joint generation and publication of research findings


At the university/schools network level

  • Universities have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that can be shared with schools in collaborative networks
  • Universities have access to methodological tools and knowledge of previous research which is invaluable to schools.
  • Research capacity within schools can be built through university programmes e.g. Masters, and also providing specific training.
  • Schools and universities learn from each other in a multitude of ways – it is symbiotic.
  • Universities can ensure research rigour and critical evaluation.
  • Creating joint research projects to move beyond the case study approach.
  • Universities can support applications for research funding.


Some final thoughts

  • In an age of austerity, how can funding for practitioner research be ensured?
  • Research empowers teachers – they are hungry to learn more. Teachers love learning!
  • All teachers are graduates and have some initial teacher training involved in research – this can be built upon.
  • Should all schools be formally linked/partnered with universities?

The power of the collective should be recognised, supported and celebrated!











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A review of the Research Leads Network Symposium, March 7th 2017 (hosted by SUPER)

Guest post: Jennie Richards, Emeritus Teacher Research Lead (SUPER)

What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

About 50 interested people attended this recent event, which was the fourth meeting of the new “networks of networks”. A formal welcome from Professor Geoff Hayward, Head of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge highlighted the potential of research partnerships, coining the phrase which was to become something of the theme for the evening: “the power of the collective”.

The symposium consisted of two main parts, with each part launched through brief inputs from a variety of contributors from SUPER (teachers and Faculty representatives). The rest of the time was given to table discussions (each table hosted by a member of SUPER) where the main points were recorded on paper for future review.

  1. How has partnership research impacted on the schools and the university (benefits and challenges)?

IMG_9956Dave Hall, a Research Lead, spoke first, in particular demonstrating how using a networking survey of staff at his school led to significant insight into how information and knowledge about pedagogy is transferred. Then Rob Robson (a recent Head teacher) spoke of how involvement with research and SUPER had led to school improvement and a research culture becoming integral to the school’s development plans. Finally in this part, Bethan Morgan spoke enthusiastically of the symbiotic nature of the partnership and some of the challenges that were involved.

  1. An input on SUPER’s current joint research project, “How do we promote character, resilience and wellbeing in an educational climate of outcome accountability?”

Ros McLellan and Brian Barham explained how the research question had evolved over time, and the methodologies that had been chosen. In particular, emphasis was given to being able to use an existing survey tool for the enquiry which had already been successfully used by the Faculty, thus saving a great deal of time and effort.

Then 3×2 minute presentations followed from three school Research Leads (Abi Thurgood-Buss from Rodings Primary School in the Dunmow Consortium, Krista Carson from Soham Village College and Mike Murray from Impington Village College) with reflections on current findings and the next steps envisaged.

Discussions on tables then reflected on the research processes that had been described and any lessons that people had learned from the presentations which would help them to answer the question about useful tools to create and sustain networks as posed in the title of the symposium.

Finally the symposium finished with the question of where next with the network of networks? Nothing was decided at that point but hopefully more symposia will be arranged to build on “the power of the collective”. In my next blogpost I will summarise the ideas that were floated and collected during the evening’s table discussions.

Many thanks to Jennie for this guest post. We will publish her summary of key ideas next. For the session slides including programme, please see the previous blogpost.


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4th Meeting of the Research Leads Network Symposium hosted by SUPER, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, 7th March 2017

Over 50 participants attended the 4th meeting of the research leads ‘network of networks’ which SUPER was delighted to host at the faculty (see previous blog posts by Jennie Richards for overviews of past symposia held at Eton and Christ the King Sixth Form).


A more detailed blog post will follow but in the meantime participants and others who are interested can access:

SUPER would like to thank all the presenters and participants who came from near and far for contributing to lively and thought-provoking discussions!

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Please, Don’t Leave Educational Research to the Scientists!

Many thanks to Dr Frank Cornelissen for the following guest post!  Frank was recently a Visiting Scholar with us and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Follow him on twitter @Frank_Corneliss

Unfair, unwise, unethical

Like mfrank-at-tedx-cambsany people in education and society we believe that teachers and their pupils should have the chance to freely benefit from valuable insights of research. However, currently teachers have to pay an astonishing 30 pounds to download just 1 article from an academic publisher. Until this very day we systematically lock teachers (and the pupils they teach) away from possibly life changing research insights. This is unfair, unwise and unethical.

A matter of principle

Following the inspiring English example of Vincent Lien I also initiated a petition for Open Research Access for Teachers in the Netherlands. It was signed by many and offered to the Dutch Secretary of State for Education in the Hague last year. The Secretary of State replied kindly that he fully agreed on the importance of open research access, but at the same time was not planning on paying anything to academic publishers to make research available for Dutch teachers. Not paying for access was a matter of principle he stated. Consequently and quite conveniently the money stayed in the government’s pocket and again a more fundamental principle was bypassed i.e. that teachers as professionals who are teaching our future generations ought to have free access to all recent research insights that are relevant to  their education. Sadly enough I have to conclude that till this day nobody has given Dutch teachers free research access yet…

Groundbreaking news

All the greater was my joy when I recently received the groundbreaking news that the College of Teaching follows the examples of Ireland and Scotland and will give English teachers access to education research journals on January 18th!

Time to Hack Educational Research

Open access is step one, but of course much more needs to be done to bridge the longstanding gap between research and educational practice. In the past years I’ve been fortunate to meet many inspiring teachers, school leaders and academics who find creative ways to connect research to teaching. During a recent TEDx event at Cambridge University I had a chance to share what I’ve learned from them and explain how we may bridge the research-practice gap in a different way.

I believe the time is right to hack educational research, and we need creative teacher-hackers to do it…


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Meeting of the Research Leads Network Symposium held at City Hall, London 2nd December 2016

Guest post by Jennie Richards

City Hall London

Photo by tyom at

I attended the third meeting of this group on behalf of SUPER and was very impressed with the level of interest in both the new “network  of networks”(there were well over 70 delegates from a range of schools and institutions) and our work at SUPER. I had been asked to be on the panel discussion for the final session, which gave me an opportunity to talk briefly about SUPER. Also, to ask for suggestions for the content of the next meeting, which Cambridge is hosting in a twilight session next term (date to be confirmed).

The previous two meetings  (at Eton College and the Institute of Education) were mainly about justifications for the new network, arguments for teachers researching their practice and some of the current thinking from academics and organisations involved in promoting evidence based practice in schools. This meeting was different in that it seemed to be more focused on giving concrete examples of the structures and current projects being created and undertaken in schools and networks, showcasing and evaluating the impact of some of their findings.  Prof Bill Lucas from the University of Winchester acted as facilitator, and the hosting was organised by Christ the King Sixth Form College.

Sessions were delivered by:

  1. CtK, the hosts, a consortium of 3 sixth form colleges whose CPD model was described, demonstrating the growing research culture across the institution, giving flavours of collaborative projects and outcomes of research from teachers involved.
  2. Eton College gave a presentation about their current progress, in particular focusing on the work of their Researcher in Residence.
  3. The Greenwich R and D partnership with the IoE, covering primary and secondary schools, described their more emergent stage of development as a research partnership.

Each session was followed by table discussion of what had been heard, plus the panel discussion later.

There was much talk of the range of options for schools to become involved in collaborative teacher research and there were plenty of opportunities to view not only the successes, but also the challenges that are involved. There was much emphasis on learning as opposed to performance, and a genuinely collaborative and optimistic culture seems to be emerging in the group. I believe it has the potential to be a powerful voice to promote SUPER, its values and aims.

Suggestions for the meeting at Cambridge which emerged from the group included:

  • More understanding of how networks and partnerships can be created and sustained
  • Support structures for developing deep learning
  • How to develop peer-led professional development
  • What tools can be used/are needed to facilitate research informed practice
  • How to evaluate impact and effectiveness

The next meeting at Cambridge should therefore focus on some of these issues. I would suggest that a mixture of theory and examples of relevant practice have been well received by this group, with plenty of discussion opportunities and a similar structure would be appropriate. The audience is mixed in terms, of schools (both independent and state), universities and representatives from various organisations such as CUREE. Some of the audience are experienced in promoting research cultures in schools, whereas others are at the start of their journeys. Hopefully SUPER will be hosting an interesting, informative and stimulating event which will enable this new network to move forward and flourish.

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Eton College Symposium: The Role of Research in School

Guest post by Jennie Richards

On 4th July 2016, Jennie Richards, Dave Hall and Lucy Sherratt, three teacher research leads representing SUPER attended a symposium at Eton College entitled “The role of research in schools”.  This was a very interesting and new event which enabled a wide range of people to meet, share ideas, and discuss possible future developments with regard to school based educational research. There were delegates from USA as well as the UK, and both the independent and state school sectors were represented.

Speakers included Bill Lucas, Geoff Petty, Philippa Cordingley, Louise Stoll, Rob Coe, Laela Adamson and Gary Jones. They provided thought provoking ideas which led to discussion between the representatives of schools, universities and relevant organisations regarding the use of research evidence to support school improvement and the development of sustainable professional learning communities.

The final session of the day enabled consideration to be given to the questions “Where might we go next, and what might we might make together?” Key needs that were identified, with remarkable levels of agreement, can be summarised as the following:

  1. One key umbrella website providing a user-friendly, free, robust and accessible body of professional knowledge which can support research in schools.
  2. A reliable and sustainable source of funding for supporting school research networks.
  3. A national organisation which connects and joins all the current networks together into a coherent whole.
  4. A network which researches and supports the development of teacher research leads in schools.
  5. University involvement with all schools to encourage joint research and knowledge sharing.
  6. Commitment from the government to the value of research in schools. Further support for teachers to Masters level study.
  7. Independent and state school partnership in promoting researching schools and networks.
  8. A more conscious commitment to developing teacher research “from the ground up” and the development of students as researchers.
  9. Aspirational standards for teachers which support professional identity. Universal recognition of the need for trainee teachers to develop research skills and expertise.
  10. National awards for good research practice in schools.

Clearly in the current economic and political climate, these ideas are ambitious and challenging. However, they need to be expressed and optimistically pursued.

It is to be hoped that this very successful symposium can be repeated next year, and thanks to Eton College for hosting such an inspiring event. SUPER is one of the most successful and longest surviving schools university research partnerships.  Dave, Lucy and I all agreed after the event that the day had been really worthwhile and we were really pleased to have been able to gain some recognition and publicity for the good work of SUPER at a national and international level.

For tweets related to the event, see #TLCresearch

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Can art trips and artist practitioner visits help students’ understanding of creative knowledge and/or skills? A study of Year 9 and 10 Art-Textiles students in a village college

Guest post: Kathryn Aybak (a teacher who recently completed her Masters of Education with us on the School-University Partnership for Educational Research course at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge). This article reproduced with kind permission from Impington Village College impact issue 4 Autumn 2015  Also in this issue: an article by another SUPER Alumnus, Andy Baldwin on ‘Extra-Curricular Activities and Attainment in Maths: the Good Bits’ plus ‘Memorisation, review and making knowledge stick’, a report on a CASSA Teaching School Alliance R&D Conference by Mo Middleton and Mike Murray. Update: all issues of impACT can now be read/downloaded from this link on the Impington Village College website!

KA headshotImpington’s founder, Henry Morris, was passionate about putting art, architecture and colour into school. He had a vision for a democratic access to art for all pupils, abolition of the ‘insulated school’ and for lifelong education. In the present educational climate I became concerned that narrowly defined goals were driving both teachers and students in a target-oriented model of education, and that ‘the performativity discourse is hijacking the creativity discourse’ (Turner-Bisset, 2007, p.201).  I am motivated by issues of equality of opportunity, employability skills and the value of creativity and Art within education. I began to question how does Morris’s creative vision fit, in today’s marketised target driven educational culture? (Sahlberg, 2013).

KA research questions

Creativity with a small c
Whilst the importance of creativity in education has been emphasised in the last decade (Jeffrey and Craft, 2006), the current Department of Education’s (DfE) lack of emphasis on creativity and the arts, together with Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, announcing in November 2014 that only STEM subjects lead to careers and that the arts were not useful for future careers, stands in direct contrast with research on for example, ‘little c creativity’ (Craft, 2001). ‘Little c creativity’, could help with students becoming flexible and divergent thinkers, which the current economic climate requires, especially as many argue that the UK is out of step with the global market (Hannon, 2012 and PISA results, 2012). This reinforces the necessity for keeping creativity at the forefront of the educational debate. Whilst within education one of the key features of Art, suggested by Maslow (1968), Boden (1996) and Lucas (2002), is the sense of there being no ‘right’ answer or method, students could achieve a positive task outcome through creative processes of learning, as defined by their own expectations, and according to this theory improve engagement (Lee, Morrell, Marini and Smith, 2012). Linked to this is Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory (1988; 1990; 1994; 1996), which combines the ideas of emotional and behavioural engagement with an activity.

Kath cartoon 1

Research focus
Many students and parents have told me that they do not know enough about Art careers and are concerned that Art is not a secure option post-16; it can instead be viewed as a leisure activity.  The perception that Art is not a serious option choice made me seek out data concerning employment in the creative industries. I discovered that these industries embrace a wide range of career routes and that, in the UK, total creative employment is 2,278,500 (7.8% of all employment).  I questioned how I could help students make informed choices about creative careers.

With careers guidance having been taken away from local authorities and handed to schools (September 2012), schools could feel under pressure to provide the necessary skills, to fulfil the duty put upon them, on top of the need to deliver results.  I became interested in investigating whether taking students out on Art trips and, more specifically, to creative careers events could help students to understand about creative careers.

Further to this I wanted to investigate creativity and flow (Csikszentmihalyi ,1990 ‘Flow theory’) during an artist workshop and compare this to a normal school day.

Trips and creative careers
The findings from two questionnaires, one completed before the trip and one after and five semi-structured interviews indicated that the trips had a positive impact on student’s understanding about creative careers. 100% of students said that the trips had informed them about creative careers and that they knew a lot more about types of careers in the arts after the trips.

KA themes tableKey themes emerged after the trips.  Over half of the students identified: learning from others, real-life learning, learning as fun, trips as motivating, inspiring and helping with creative techniques. They also said they got access to appropriate and up to date information and resources, skills and ideas.  These themes were supported by comments made during semi-structured interviews.  These findings support some of the initial themes I had identified through the literature review on creativity, learning environments and creative partnerships, with a mixture of inductive/deductive approaches adopted.

Art related careers
The perception of Art and art careers was largely a positive one. After the trips this positive perception increased as they felt better informed about careers and courses in the creative industries.  I had not expected so many students to view Art careers in a positive light.  The majority thought Art was enjoyable and intrinsically motivating, but they also thought it was diverse and therefore careers could be difficult to understand.

Impact of a day with an artist
To investigate this area I used Experience Sampling Forms (ESF’s) (Bryne, MacDonald and Carlton, 2003) for the artist workshop day and compared these to a normal school day.  These should determine whether or not ‘flow’ occurs, if three of the conditions of flow were present. I also used visual methods, with questions inspired by Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi (1976) to visually analyse the work produced by students on the all- day artist workshop day.

KA key findingsAnalysis of ESF’s indicate positive correlations between levels of ‘flow’ indicated and assessment of creativity.  Students’ did experience ‘flow’ during the artist day, as three or more of the conditions for flow to occur were present.  It could therefore be concluded that aspects of flow, including the balance between challenge and skill and no worry of failure, were evident during the artist day. This supports Csikszwntmihalyi’s theory of flow and corroborates evidence from studies citing the positive effects of students engaging with artists. Students feel more energetic, focused, cheerful, involved, excited and confident during the artist all day workshop, compared to the normal school day.

This graph illustrates the findings:

KA graph

A visual analysis of the art work produced by the students who had completed ESF’s suggested correlations between levels of creativity and levels of optimal experience.  It could be surmised that a day of doing Art was enjoyable.

Performativity and its impact on creativity
It is possible to speculate that students do not experience flow/creativity during the normal school day because there are more time pressures on them.  The fragmented nature of the day could make immersion in an activity difficult, whereas during the artist workshop students had more time to develop creative work.

I am able to conclude that working in a variety of contexts with different creative practitioners helped to enable creative thinking, and that overall these experiences promoted positive learning experiences.  These results are context directed and do not represent all Year 9 and 10 students, but my aim was not causality but ‘understanding’ (Maxwell, 2002 in Huberman and Miles).

Conclusions and recommendations
It is clear from this data that not only do Art teachers need to provide opportunities such as trips, for students to understand about creative careers and skills, but more generally schools and politicians need to be receptive to the benefits to pupils’ learning, when taken out on trips.  These also advocate the need for time to be given to creative activities, especially important given the current educational climate.

It has not been possible to accurately assess how trips and artist visits have helped with creativity, but that participants do seem more motivated by being given freedom, meeting with others, and learning from the real world.

Within an educational context I still posit that creativity is best described of in terms of problem-solving (Craft’s’ little c’, 2001) and as a process of active, constructive understanding (Fleming, 2010).  After reflecting upon Art’s role in creativity and student comments and how intrinsically motivated they felt by the Art making process, I arrived at the conclusion that Art can be about novelty and originality and does offer something new.  This does not alienate some students and make the creative process only open to a few, but reinforces the need for all students to be given the opportunity to experience different learning experiences in a variety of contexts.  The idea that all subjects can be equally creative could contribute to it being further marginalised.  Findings from the artist workshop do show that students produced creative work and experienced ‘flow’, which I do not think is possible in all subjects.

This particular research focused on trips and an artist visit, but there was little opportunity to explore other ways of developing creative knowledge such as connections with local galleries and creative connections across subjects, including within traditional EBacc subjects.

Relevance of this research
The importance of creativity and its benefits for future generations is not a current focus for the DfE. This was one of the reasons I felt it necessary to investigate creativity in school. This focus on creativity may seem justifiable, as more and more of our time is spent reaching to performativity based targets, which Hodgson and Spours (2012) suggest occupies a teacher and student’s attention to such an extent that education becomes detached from the economy. This focus on achievement in the core subjects could lead to Art’s contribution being diminished.

Having initially been inspired by my students to carry out this research, my passion still lies with informing students about creative skills and creative careers. When I was lead teaching the Art BTEC I felt that some of the more applied aspects of Art learning were better addressed by that course.

This research has enabled me to become a more reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983) and to continue with this research process.  I have begun to investigate the ways in which other schools embed creative knowledge and skills, and inform about careers.  I recently contacted a post-16 college, which is more vocational in focus, and interviewed the Head of Art.  She explained how the college invites outside clients to meet the students and set live briefs; not dissimilar to the work by the Sorrell Foundation (YDP, 2005).  The concern however is that in the current educational environment, opportunities for developing creative thinkers for the future economy could be inhibited. Students could worry about getting things wrong and taking risks (Holt, 1984). Further to this, if, by 2017, about half the new jobs in the UK will be coming out of the creative sector, it is imperative students have more knowledge about these jobs. However, we need to be mindful that we are not preoccupied, as Oakley (1994, p.23) states, with young people as ‘becoming’ and with their status as ‘would be adults’, rather than the here and now state of ‘being’, which could also contradict the process driven creative process.

I would like to further investigate the inherent contradictions within an educational system that is, on the one hand, preparing students for a competitive, fast moving, globalised marketplace, and demanding skills of flexibility and innovative and creative thinking, whilst on the other is squeezing out arts and creative subjects in favour of STEM subjects and a target-oriented model of education.

Key recommended reading
Ball, S.J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.
Butcher, J. (2009).  Off-campus Learning and Employability in Undergraduate Design: the Sorrell Young Design Project as an Innovative Partnership. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 7, (3), pp.171-184.
Craft, A. Jeffrey, B. and Leibling, M. (eds.) (2001) Creativity in Education.London: Continuum.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Full references referred to in the text available on request from

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‘No surrender’. A case study of how one Bedfordshire Upper School meets the challenge to improve students’ writing

Guest post: Tricia Lennie (a teacher who recently completed her Masters in Education with us at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)

I’ve just seen my academic transcTricia Lennie twitter imageript online for the first time and, satisfying as the numbers are, is that really what it was all about? I don’t think so. I’ve spend the past two years completing a SUPER M.Ed, the part-time Masters course at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, designed for serving teachers and, for me, it was about something even more important than that. Apologies if this sounds pompous or self-aggrandising, but for me it was all about professional integrity.

It’s a familiar scenario: long-serving teacher, gives blood in various middle management roles but, for whatever reason, doesn’t make it to senior leadership role, becomes disenchanted with the ‘way we do things here’ but doesn’t have the decision making capacity to do anything about it. So far, so familiar and for many of us, this might be the beginning of the end. A Head teacher I once worked with used to call it, ‘the cancer in the staffroom’, where cynicism and dissatisfaction spreads like a mutant cell. This might have been my fate if it were not for the opportunity to undertake an in-service Masters course.

As an English specialist, my main interest was why current initiatives to improve student writing were not having more success and I wanted to try out approaches recommended by the National Writing Project (for more information see ). What I didn’t foresee were the ideological barriers I would face as I attempted to start a ‘Teachers as Writers’ group in my own school. It was a fascinating journey and, like the best quest stories, one with villains and heroes, the potential for disaster and human cost, full of twists and turns but ultimately illuminating, refreshing, even vindicating.

For my thesis abstract, key implications plus further links, see below.


This autoethnographic case study explores the apparent differences in one English Department regarding the most effective ways to improve student writing. Qualitative data is examined to reveal ideological and methodological tensions between an approach informed by National Writing Project ideals and an approach informed by the government’s current standards debate. Data was gathered over the course of one academic year and contains semi-structured interview transcripts with a wide range of staff and students, as well as exemplar material and field notes. The discussion is located in the literature of government policy contrasted with contemporary exegeses most notably by Smith and Wrigley, Locke and Myhill.

The analysis concebook for Triciarns English teachers’ attempts to understand the ‘field of judgement’ applied to student work by the examination board, to write a scheme of work, to mark student written work, to trial a different approach and to work within a whole school context. The study advocates a pragmatic blend of National Writing Project methods within current external constraints. It concludes that a radical change of approach to school literacy policy, teaching styles and approaches would be beneficial to improvement in student writing.


Seven key implications of my research

  • National measures of writing progress suggest that Illich may have had a point in his polemic ‘Deschooling Society’ (1995), “Together we have come to realize that for most men the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school”.
  • Any strategy that seeks to intervene in students’ writing needs to recognise the skills are developing throughout their life. This may have implications for liaison between co-operating schools.
  • Writing pedagogy should be reframed, as far as is possible within the school context, as a process not a product. Students should feel that their development as writers is more important than the grade on a piece of work and this will involve adaptations to classroom practice.
  • Keeping a personal journal, from the beginning to the end of their school career and beyond, should be encouraged. Introducing more flexible ways of responding to student writing within their journals, which empower them as writers, may encourage student motivation and self-efficacy. The use of portfolios of best work is another way of encouraging drafting skills and making progress data more reliable.
  • Enhanced student motivation and self-efficacy is likely to have a beneficial effect on student behaviour.
  • Writing tasks with ‘real’ audiences have been shown to improve student motivation, and this may be easier to achieve in terminally examined KS4 and KS5 courses.
  • Talented and motivated student writers are currently an underused resource for promoting writing practice.

Links to the full thesis can be found on and Researchgate under Tricia Lennie, ‘No surrender’. A case study of how one Bedfordshire Upper School meets the challenge to improve students’ writing.

The real benefit to teachers of in-service Higher Degrees is the opportunity to reflect on practice; to fraternise with the very best scholars in your field; to learn how to investigate practice and make a scholarly case for change. For this opportunity, I would like to thank the inspiring staff in the Faculty of Education and the SUPER M.Ed cohort of 2013-15.


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