Working with Schools in Disadvantaged Urban Contexts

- A  Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Project (KTEN)


Raising standards of teaching and learning in schools, especially those serving socio-economically disadvantaged communities, is a key issue of concern for governments worldwide.

The English Policy Context

Kunskapsöverföring och kunskapsutbyte In recent years, governments in the UK have engaged in a series of radical structural and curriculum reforms intended to transform the governance, structures and cultures of schools, the curriculum and processes of learning and teaching in classrooms and, through these, to build capacity for improvements in teaching and learning and close the achievement gap. Yet recent evidence shows that despite persistent efforts over the past half century, the attainment gap between children with different socio-economic backgrounds still remains ( Strand, 2014;OECD, 2011).

A central component of government-led deep structural and cultural changes is the development of localised choice through an increasingly diversified and decentralized, ‘self-improving’ school system. Opportunities and incentives have been offered to schools to become autonomous ‘academies’, independent of local authority (Municipality) control and develop collaborative partnerships with other schools through ‘Federations’, ‘Multi Academy Trusts’ (MATs) and ‘Teaching School Alliances’ (TSAs).

These are expected to be both self-improving and more directly accountable to government for raising levels of pupil achievement. Running parallel with these and other successive reform efforts has been a range of related research projects, some commissioned directly by government, some through government funded, independent research organisations. However, research findings have not always impacted on schools and teachers.

The Project

The professional capital of school staff is an essential lever for improving student learning.

As yet, we know relatively little about how existing knowledge of the work of successful leaders in different contexts might be used to inform leaders of academies and teaching school alliances in their development of practices which are appropriate to their new contexts for schools and schooling. The numbers of academies have increased considerably in recent years and, together with teaching school alliances, are likely to further increase under government policies. I

t was timely, therefore, to build upon, apply and extend academic knowledge about effective school leadership and effective classroom practice through the design and application of research informed strategies for improvement in these new forms of schools. The TRANSFORM primary schools’ teaching school alliance (TSA) involved in this project, consisting of one ‘Teaching School’ (judged to be outstanding by the English external inspection agency, Ofsted) and six more schools, was an exemplar of a newly emerging national system of formal inter-school partnerships for mutual support and education excellence.

The Secondary Academy was an example of those that were established under the previous government as a means of ‘re-launching’ failing and under-achieving schools in disadvantaged urban areas.


The project had six central objectives:

  • To apply research-based knowledge and to co-construct new knowledge on the effective leadership of student learning and achievement in a secondary academy and a primary teaching school alliance serving disadvantaged urban communities.
  • To achieve this through the sustained engagement of academics with school leaders in school-based participatory research and development groups in one teaching school alliance consisting of seven primary schools and one secondary academy.
  • To evaluate and document the knowledge exchange working processes, development of teaching and learning strategies and results.
  • To organise an end of project conference of schools serving disadvantaged urban communities in the East Midlands region in order to disseminate these to the wider teaching community.
  • To establish a permanent knowledge transfer and exchange network, initially with the participant schools.
  • To provide an archive of web based best practice project materials in the form of research informed practice based tools for school leaders which would be accessible to network members.


These central objectives were to be achieved through:

  1. The exchange of academic research and practice based knowledge through the formation of lead research and development groups consisting of the team of three academic applicants and the head teachers of the seven primary schools and the leadership group of the secondary academy.
  2. The development and application of research and practice informed leadership strategies by these groups through their leadership of school inquiry groups (SIGs). These will focus on specific topics related to need and identified by the leadership groups.
  3. The monitoring and evaluation of the application and effects of these strategies through the SIGs related to specific improvement needs of classroom teachers.
  4. Twelve research and development group meetings with the leadership groups over the school year.
  5. The application of academic research knowledge of participatory research and development and five areas of academic research knowledge which have been agreed with the participants: turnaround school leadership; sustaining successful leadership; effective classroom learning and teaching; teachers' work, lives and effectiveness, and leading collaborative school based inquiry.
  6. The development, collaborative production and archiving of a series of materials which would be specific to the improvement efforts of leaders of schools which serve urban disadvantaged urban communities.


The work, which built on knowledge outcomes of past and on-going research, was centrally informed by the key findings of six national and international research projects on school leadership and teachers and teaching in which the PI and academic team members had taken leading roles, including successful and effective school leadership: successful leadership of European schools in challenging urban contexts; effective classroom practice; turnaround schools through the London Leadership Strategy; networked learning communities); and teachers' work, lives and effectiveness.

These and other research had shown that leaders and teachers in schools which serve disadvantaged urban communities face a unique set of challenges with regard to promoting equity, managing pupil behaviour and raising levels of pupil achievement; and that they require additional context specific qualities, capacities and skills to be effective (Day and Johansson, 2008; Ylimaki and Jacobson, 2011; Gu and Johansson, 2014).

The Academy and the Teaching School Alliance had expressed a deep interest and commitment to the knowledge exchange project which focused upon five key areas: i) turnaround leadership of underachieving schools in disadvantaged urban communities; ii) leaders who sustain success; iii) effective leadership of classroom teaching and learning; iv)) variations in teachers' work, lives and effectiveness; and v) collaborative school-based inquiry.

Academic knowledge of these five areas was, therefore, able to be applied to their priorities for development so that they might extend their understanding and improve their practice of leadership strategies for learning in these contexts. Through dialogue, the academic knowledge possessed by the university team was synthesised into three themes:

  • Knowledge of leadership strategies for capacity building: Research over the last ten years internationally has shown that capacity building processes have made significant contributions to teacher and school effectiveness (Sammons, 2008; Hallinger and Heck, 2010).

    Our recent research had also found that there are associations between teachers’ capacities for improvement and their sense of commitment, identity and resilience (Day and Gu, 2009; Gu and Day, 2007) and that the levels of support provided by school leaders influence, positively or negatively, these associations (Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris and Hopkins, 2006; Day et al., 2007; Day and Gu, 2010).
  • Knowledge of leadership influences upon teachers’ work, lives and classroom effectiveness: Our research on effective and improving schools had found that leadership is second only to classroom teaching in its influence on pupil achievement and that effective leaders exercise three kinds of influence – direct, indirect and reciprocal (Leithwood et al., 2006). Such influence has been found particularly in research on effective classroom practice (Day et al., 2008; Kington et al., 2012).

    Successful leaders invest heavily in leading professional learning and development (Robinson et al., 2009), often through situated learning (Wenger, 1998) and in developing trust in growing and sustaining cultures of professional  in staff development (Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Seashore Louis, 2005, Day et al., 2011). A large scale mixed methods national project on variations in teachers’ work, lives and effectiveness (Day et al., 2007) had also found strong quantitative and qualitative associations between teacher commitment and their classroom effectiveness and the important influence of leadership on this (Day and Gu, 2009).
  • Knowledge of collaborative research principles and practices: Research by team members had identified school-based collaborative inquiry as a systematic, evidence-led and effective approach to whole school learning (Townsend, 2010, 2013; Day and Townsend, 2009). This approach enables academic partners to support processes of collaborative practitioner inquiry as well as provide guidance on related research.


The School-University Collaborative Approach: roles and responsibilities

The successful application and use of these three knowledge areas relied upon the interpersonal as well as technical knowledge skills of the academics in building trust and credibility within an ethical framework agreed with the schools. The academic team acted as research-informed ‘critical friends’ with the school leaders through the provision of new knowledge and promotion of collaborative inquiry principles and practices.

Central to these processes was the close and sustained engagement of the academics with the leaders of these schools, first in presenting and discussing new academic knowledge in the five areas defined. This was achieved through a series of dialogues; and then, the use of principles and practices of action inquiry in co-constructing research informed strategies with the head teachers in their design and leadership of school-based inquiry with senior and middle leaders and classroom teachers.

A sustained participatory approach was sustained throughout the 12 month partnership, in the form of workshops and school leader led inquiries. The results were used to co-construct, produce, document and apply new knowledge about effective leadership for learning practices to the specific contexts and expressed needs within and across the schools. Research suggests that ‘critical friends’ (Brydon-Miller and Maguire, 2009; van Swet et al. 2009) are those who are able to contribute to enhancing processes of practitioners’ reflection on action (Schon, 1983) and ‘about’ action as occurring within the broader policy, social and professional contexts in which they work (Anderson, Herr and Nighlen, 2007).

We, therefore, worked with them in their planning for their leadership of school inquiry groups (SIGs) and as co-researchers, in the course of applying, contextualising and constructing new knowledge of effective school leadership for learning in academies which serve disadvantaged urban communities. In doing so, we combined the dissemination of findings of research about education (knowledge transfer) with the participants’ personal practical knowledge in education, so enabling these leaders to develop and test a common stock of shared understandings through collaborative inquiry (knowledge exchange and utilisation).

Project Outcomes 1: the user community

The research impacted on both the user and academic community through a combination of actions:


  • An invitational national end-of-project dissemination event was held. The event was designed to share evidence of the impact of the project on the headteachers and staff of the participant schools, through presentations and discussion of the issues of knowledge exchange between universities and schools. This brought together 50 school and system leaders and representatives from Teaching School Alliances across the country.
  • The interactive inward facing website set up for the project was changed, as planned, to an outward facing, publically accessible website which contains video interviews with the participant headteachers and other school leaders, materials used during the project and the group and individual school posters concerning impact that were prepared for the conference.
  • The pathway that has the most effective, direct impact on the practice and performance of schools has been through working closely with school leaders to design, implement and evaluate research informed school led, sustained professional development. This work has continued over the year since the project ended. For example:
    • One school has developed a ‘Research Corner’ in its staffroom and appointed an Assistant Headteacher with responsibility for research.
    • The Executive Headteacher of the TSA has developed a ‘Leadership Pathway Map’, a suite of professional development programmes for leaders across the Alliance, and has implemented one of these.
    • In another school, ‘resilience’, the theme of the partnership work, is reported by the headteacher to now be ‘embedded’ in the school. Well-being remains high on the school agenda and staff absence has become ‘minimal’. There have been improved measurable pupil outcomes which are in 2015, ‘the best ever in Foundation, KS1 and Year 1 phonics, with a sharp upward trend at KS2.’
    • Another school has, ‘embraced the model of collaboration’ and ‘taken on the mantle of a research-informed school’. It now uses on a regular basis, staff dialogue based upon academic writings, building a library of evidence and research informed publications. In this school, also, pupil progress across reading, writing and maths has improved.

In sum, the knowledge gained from this knowledge exchange project continues to impact on the participant schools and has been widely disseminated to influence the work of practitioner stakeholders in the education system.

Outcomes 2: What was learned about knowledge exchange partnerships: 10 key messages

The project produced ten key messages relevant to the design and implementation of successful knowledge exchange work:

The learning worlds of academics and school practitioners are very different. Two continuing challenges to work of this kind are the busyness cultures in which teachers work and the relative intensity and unpredictability of leading and teaching in schools that serve pupils drawn from emotionally, economically and socially disadvantaged communities. This is in contrast to the worlds of academics that are characterised by the demands of knowledge generation and production.

  • Academically derived knowledge needs to be expressed in terms which are perceived to be meaningful by the practitioner recipients.
  • To influence it must be able to become integrated with the personal and practical and contextual knowledge of school practitioners.
  • New academic knowledge in itself is unlikely to have lasting influence without the closely associated credibility and trustworthiness of the academic partner.
  • Head teachers and their staff are unlikely to invest in acquiring academically generated knowledge without confidence in this credibility.
  • Because head teachers themselves are likely to have different dispositions towards the value of research, be in different phases of their own development and be managing different sets of challenges in their schools, credibility and trust needs to be earned by partner academics.
  • To influence successfully, academics themselves, therefore, need particular sets of technical and human relating qualities and skills.
  • Knowledge of processes of social influence and the capability to apply these is, therefore, essential to academics who wish to engage in these partnerships.
  • The success of academic-practitioner partnership work rests upon the nature, forms and quality of the collaboration. We have learnt through this project that the quality and depth of collaboration is built over time, earned rather than given, that it requires an on-going commitment from all parties, that the level of commitment may vary over time according to anticipated and unanticipated events at school level which require urgent attention of the head teacher and which, on occasion, may result in temporary negative effects on the head teacher’s own well-being.

    In such circumstances, it is the practitioners’ work imperatives that are likely to take precedence over the partnership. Collaboration needs to be seen, therefore, as a process that may be subject to fluctuation and that requires the capacity for resilience in all partners.
  • Knowledge exchange partnerships need to be understood as being developmental over time and likely to require shifts in cultural mind  sets. To succeed, therefore, school-university partnerships need to be established as a requirement of school improvement practices and university academics.


‘What KTEN did was to open our eyes about different ways of teaching and learning’

The project has much in common with ‘Design-based implementation research’ (Penuel et al; 2011) in that it took an iterative approach to developing innovations that were context specific in their content but similar in the participative forms of inquiry. The work with all schools had four common elements:

  • ‘a focus on persistent problems of practice from multiple stakeholders;
  • a commitment to iterative, collaborative design;
  • a concern with developing theory related to both classroom learning and implementation through systematic inquiry; and
  • a concern with developing capacity for sustaining change in systems’
    (Penuel et al; 2011: 332)

As a result of the project the head teachers determined that they would continue with research-informed inquiry work as an integral part of professional development in their own schools and, as part of their commitment to the wider membership of 48 schools in the TRANSFORM Teaching Schools Alliance, to spread the work among these colleagues.

The University of Nottingham team provided a critical conduit through which the published outcomes of selected academic research related to the inquiries of partner schools was identified and shared with partners. The expectation had not been that this knowledge should replace or take precedence over the knowledge and interests of school leaders and their colleagues from participating schools. Rather this ‘academic knowledge’ and its efficacy and relevance were tested against the practical, situated knowledge and through its application and use in the sustained inquiries of partners. This included developing and testing new practices that addressed the concerns of partners, but were informed by research.

The consequence of this was that whilst the practical implications of the outcomes of academic knowledge were explored, on occasion they were also challenged, critiqued and adapted so that they could better relate to the challenging contexts and development needs identified by the leaders of the schools in the KTEN partnership in particular phases of their improvement journeys.


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The author

Christopher DayChristopher Day is Professor of Education and co-convenor of the Centre for Research on Educational Leadership and Management (CRELM). He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Linkoping, Sweden, in 1993.

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Last updated: Fri Oct 28 10:28:37 CEST 2016