Category Archives: Research

Shaping South Yorkshire

Last week the Princess of Wales launched the Shaping Us campaign aimed at raising awareness of the importance of early childhood experiences in how we develop physically, socially and emotionally. The campaign starts from the premise that:

“The way we develop, through our experiences, relationships, and surroundings during our early childhood, fundamentally shapes our whole lives. It affects everything from our ability to form relationships and thrive at work, to our mental and physical well-being as adults and the way we parent our own children.”

This will not come as news to anyone who works with young children and their families or who is familiar with a range of research in fields as diverse as child development, health inequalities and economics. In all these areas there are powerful arguments that outcomes are improved, and society gains when resources are invested in meeting the needs of young children and their families. Politically there has been interest in intervening to support parents during those crucial first few years from the Sure Start programmes, Free Early Learning places, Children’s Centres and now Family Hubs.

Despite this interest, and some periods of significant investment, the gap in outcomes between children growing up in poverty and their more advantaged peers is no longer narrowing according to a Nuffield Study. Additionally, health inequalities, many of which start in early childhood, are actually widening. This situation has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, a recruitment and retention crisis in the early years workforce and the closure of early years courses.

Sheffield Hallam University is very active in this space in their civic role and in 2021 opened the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC) in Shirecliffe in Sheffield. The centre has a nursery that provides places for children aged 2-3 years-old who are deemed to be economically disadvantaged and entitled to 15 hours per week in nursery. To date, 80 families have been supported through the centre, and a research study with a sample of parents and carers in 2022 revealed how vital this nursery place was, not just in supporting the child’s development but in meeting the needs of the whole family. Parents reported how isolated they had become during the pandemic and how anxious this had made them about their child’s development. For example, one parent commented:

“He was more like a baby when he first came here, like a baby, you know, and now he doesn’t want his bottle as much and his dummy. He’s not bothered. He will just come and play. And he is becoming a little toddler now, not a baby anymore.”

And another reflected on how the nursery provision had reduced her anxiety:

“It means I get time on my own, because I’m a single parent and I’ve got two children, and Molly is my granddaughter, but I’ve got her full time, so obviously I’ve had no time whatsoever. Nobody takes then overnight or anything, so I don’t get a break. So having this nursery place earlier, for Molly, is just- it’s made me feel better, and I’m not on high alert 24/7.”

Parents and carers also reported that the nursery staff were a great source of support and information about their child’s health and development. They found that through being supported in a non-judgemental way they had gained confidence in the services and were now attending the parents’ breakfast club and other activities at the centre:

“Because of Wendy coming here, I am looking to either going back in to work or applying for a university place. I don’t usually like making friends. I’ve got social anxiety. But quite a few of the mums here that I talk to go to breakfast club now, so I sit with them.”

The opening of the EYCRC has led to Hallam’s involvement with a fascinating project funded through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. This initiative asks cities or city regions to gather a team of eight members drawn from relevant stakeholders to address a problem their area is facing. The team is then supported to work through the root causes of the problem and identify potential solutions. I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the eight from South Yorkshire, chosen by the regional mayor Oliver Coppard and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to look at health inequalities in early years and how they impact negatively across a person’s life. The problem identified is that health inequalities are stark in South Yorkshire and getting worse for young children and their families. Next week we will be joining other teams from across the USA and from Helsinki in New York City to start to develop potential solutions with the support of academics from Harvard and the Bloomberg team. The team recognises that this will be a huge challenge, but we are all committed to looking at how we can build a preventative, supportive system upstream for families and young children rather than waiting to help them out of the river downstream. I am hopeful that the current focus on early years is a window of opportunity for us to address these issues for the long-term. This is an opportunity that we have to grasp.

Professor Sally Pearse
Sally is the Strategic Lead for Early Years at Sheffield Hallam University and the Director of the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC). Since 2017 Sally, has led the work with early years colleagues from across South Yorkshire to develop a range of collaborative projects. These have included a £1million project, funded through the DfE Early Outcomes Fund to transform the regions speech, language and communication services and the development of the EYCRC in Sheffield. The project is now delivering nursery places and family support in an area of social and economic challenge.

Can COVID-19 break the rigid opposition to teachers working flexibly?

It feels strange to talk about a global pandemic having upsides, but as we approach the end of many restrictions in the UK, it seems apt to reflect on what lessons we might learn from the life-changing experience we’ve all been through.  As a Sheffield Business School academic with a passion for exploring professional lives, I spent last year researching teachers’ experiences of working remotely.

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Children in summer clothes with back packs walking.

Midsummer Right Scheming

Midsummer 2021, and once again a Government report is expressing concern for working-class pupils – but seemingly only the White onesi.  The statistical ‘data driven’ evidence in the report suggest objectivity and ‘fact’ but the obvious cherry-picking of evidence, seeming lack of concern about statistical accuracy and subjective bias in the discussion bely such naïve perceptions.   Statistics and racism have history.  From its’ eugenics origins, statistics have been used to obfuscate, camouflage and even legitimate racist inequitiesii.  This history requires quantitative research to adopt a critical eye if it is to avoid perpetuating crimes of the past.  Scholars in the UKiii and USiv have published around this recently and in 2016 Gillborn, et alv outlined five ‘QuantCrit’ principles to help guide quantitative enquiry in helping challenge and change racial inequality.   HC 85 along with the Sewell/CRED reportvi and the Timpson review of school exclusionvii are recent examples of Government reports that have lacked this critical eye.  This seems common around the politics of statistics; whether due to empirical naivety/ignorance or to a more pernicious political agenda, is unclear.

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Evidence-Informed Teacher Professional Development

Ahead of the Improving Standards of Teaching Through Continuing Professional Development forum taking place in London on Wednesday 3rd October, Dr Emily Perry, who will be chairing the event, shares her thoughts on how the ‘evidence-informed’ agenda, present across the education system, can be extended to also influence CPD models.

In teaching we have an ongoing move towards an ‘evidence-informed’ system, in which teachers and schools draw on evidence from research to make informed choices about ‘what works’. However, in teacher professional development, we are lagging behind. National and international studies have built up our collective knowledge of effective professional development and the impact that this can have on teachers’ practice, careers and retention in the profession, and the characteristics of effective professional development are well-established enough that the DFE has drawn them together in the CPD Standards.

These lists of characteristics can be helpful as a checklist when planning, evaluating and quality assuring CPD. However, they tend to lack a focus on a vital component of CPD: the facilitators. By facilitators I mean the people who plan, develop and deliver workshops, courses and other CPD activities for teachers. They may be teachers, consultants, academics or combinations of those and other roles. From numerous studies we know that the role of facilitator is complicated. It covers multiple activities including teacher, coach and critical friend and involves tricky balancing acts between supporting teachers as peers while still providing challenge and being a knowledgeable expert.

My own research has confirmed this complexity, showing that facilitators acknowledge but don’t appear to struggle with these potentially competing roles. They describe facilitation as including teaching and being more than teaching. Working with experienced teachers is substantially different from working with children (or with inexperienced teachers), and facilitation often includes modelling of teaching approaches, and using active learning with lots of teacher talk.

These approaches reflect the evidence around effective professional development.  But while facilitators use their knowledge and experience of teaching and of facilitation, they rarely draw on the evidence about professional development itself. For example, they don’t often appear to consider the evidence from research about particular evaluation models, such as whether a phone call to a sample of participants might provide more useful feedback than a written form completed by everybody. Nor, apparently, would they often reflect on whether particular models of CPD, such as collaborative curriculum development, might lead to greater learning and impact than, say, action research.

Few formalised development programmes exist for facilitators and most draw on their existing skills and knowledge, their experiences as a teacher and a facilitator, and on (rare) opportunities to work in collaboration with others; they tend not to look for the evidence from research.

This is not a criticism of facilitators. As a CPD facilitator myself I appreciate its many challenges and constraints. But it does highlight that, while we are hoping for teachers to use evidence to inform their practice in the classroom, we are not yet aiming for facilitators of CPD to do the same.  We need to work together to find ways to help facilitators to gain access to evidence from research and to support them to share experiences, collaborate, learn from other experts, challenge and be challenged. In other words, we should ensure that our CPD for CPD facilitators models the evidence about effective CPD.

Originally published through 

Research-Engaged Practice in Education

This month the Research-Engaged Practice Network (REPN) are back after a brief period of rest, with research being presented from a range of practitioner-led perspectives, including the Primary Science for All project, the Research Schools Network and South Yorkshire Futures. For those that aren’t aware of the REPN, it provides a way in which all those engaged in research can learn about each other’s research, develop their research skills and share findings from their own research. The environment is informal, friendly and supportive: we are all researchers together, no matter what your level of engagement and we all learn from each other.

Practitioner engagement with research why is it important?

In education, over the last few years, emphasis on practitioners’ engagement with research has grown. The Welsh government commissioned us to help to strengthen the capacity for an evidence-based, research-informed initial teacher education system in Wales. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Research Schools Network and ResearchEd are also gaining strength.  Colleagues in schools who are leading or working on bids to the Strategic School Improvement Fund or to the Education Endowment Foundation will have responded to the requirement to provide evidence of “what works”.

At school level, it’s great that increasing numbers of teachers are engaged in research through activities such as lesson study, action research or teacher research groups.  However, it can be a challenge for teachers to turn evidence from research into improved practice.  As my colleague Mike Coldwell has pointed out, evidence for some strategies can gather unwarranted traction in the system, while evidence for others may be largely ignored.

Colleagues in the SIOE, working with the University of Durham and the UCL Institute of Education, recently published a report for the DfE on the ways in which schools engage (or not) with research.  They suggest that there are three ways in which schools and teachers engage with research:

  • looking for evidence from research carried out by other organisations
  • use of school data to identify problems, followed by adaptation of research evidence to the school context
  • carrying out research into or evaluation of changes in practice

Findings of this report have now been developed into a set of practical tools for teachers and school leaders.  These tools help teachers to engage with and utilise research findings.

In the SIOE, not surprisingly, we also engage with research, and we have our own version of the three ways listed above to show a variety of types of engagement with research:

  • engaging in reading, listening to or otherwise learning about other people’s research
  • drawing on our own, colleagues’ and others’ research in our practice
  • carrying out our own research
  • using research to influence policy and other people’s practice
  • supervising postgraduate research students

These different types of engagement show that practitioners can engage with research on multiple levels at different stages of their career, depending on their confidence and expertise. We know that, whatever your experience of engaging with research, there is great value in sharing this with other practitioners. Indeed, my colleagues reported that, while many teachers valued research evidence, they were unlikely to be convinced by it unless they heard colleagues discuss its impact on their practice or saw this impact for themselves.  The REPN events offer a friendly forum for this work to be shared amongst colleagues.

We hope to see you at the April Research-Engaged Practice Network (REPN) event and other that follow.

Emily Perry is the Head of Knowledge Exchange in The SIoE.

Changing writing

I can just remember the last two occasions on which I signed my name. The first, a fortnight ago, was when I validated a friend’s passport photograph and the second, only the other day, involved signing for a parcel – and for that I used a fingernail to scrawl my name on a handheld device. With the rise of card payment and the almost complete disappearance of handwritten letters and memos at work it seems like the signature is in terminal decline. Of course there are still some very important functions that signing fulfils, but they’re less common these days. Like other kinds of writing, signatures are changing. The point I want to make here is one that has preoccupied me throughout my research career. It’s quite simple. Writing is changing rapidly – and so is communication as a whole. And whether we like it or not, this is a challenge for educators at all levels.

In our recent book New Media in the Classroom Cathy Burnett and I tackle this issue by describing some of the creative ways in which early years and primary school teachers have encouraged children to use new forms of communication in the classroom. This is in full recognition of the popularity of Snapchat and WhatsApp, the ubiquity of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, and the rapid take up of hashtags and emojis. But what about writing your name, holding a pen or developing fine motor skills for a legible cursive hand?

When you profess an interest in the changing nature of writing, people seem to automatically assume that you don’t like pens, pencils or biros. But actually I’m interested in the whole rich tapestry of human communication from Roman clay tablets to Chinese typewriters; from the invention of moveable type in Korea (yes, Korea, not Germany as you may have thought) to the recent evolution of predictive text – not forgetting, of course the proliferation of YouTube channels – and that’s before you get to the SIoE blog and Twitter accounts! None of these have supplanted other means of communication. But yet full participation in social, civic and working life does always require a familiarity with the communicative tools involved. It’s not as if writing is dying out, it’s just that human communication is becoming more complex and more diverse.

The recent Guardian Roundtable on Handwriting was an attempt to get to grips with the implications of all this for schools. Should we be spending more time on letter formation or should we dump all that in favour of keyboard skills? Of course, the question itself over-simplifies the topic. Still the discussion had to pick its way between the rock of romanticism (the golden age of copperplate – wasn’t it beautiful?) and the hard place of futurism (speech recognition software will soon be so good that in five years time we’ll all be doing hands-free writing). In reality most of us still use pen and paper – we need those skills, but their share in the economy of communication is much reduced. I believe that children should have access to the full range of communication skills, and for those who for one reason or another find pencil control difficult, there are now other tools to choose from. At least for now you need to be able to sign your name as well as find your way around a keyboard. I’m very pleased about that, because as a teenager I invested considerable effort in perfecting a distinctive and marginally legible signature. At least I can still use it, from time to time!

Guy Merchant is a Professor of Literacy in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education 


Easy targets: learning styles, ‘ability’ grouping and the politics of research use in education

This month saw the publication of a report into evidence-informed teaching written by a team from the SIOE with colleagues from Durham and UCL. The report highlights the difficulties teachers can have in assessing research quality, and this brings to mind recent complaints in the press about a lack of evidence-informed teaching. Schools are using a practice that labels children as particular kinds of learners in a way that limits their opportunity to take part in a broad range of teaching and learning activities and may harm their futures. Not only that, but the underlying evidence base for this practice is limited at best.

I’m referring, of course, to grouping pupils by attainment…except – of course – I’m not. I’m referring to every research-engaged teacher’s neuromyth enemy number 1: Learning Styles. Yet the comparison with what is usually called ‘ability grouping’ is instructive. Learning styles are now increasingly rarely used in schools: ability grouping is almost ubiquitous. There is decades of evidence of the harmful effects of ability grouping on learners especially those that are lower attaining: there is no strong scientific basis for learning styles, and a weaker but persuasive evidence base regarding their negative effects on children’s learning.

So why do policymakers, bloggers and education pundits get so exercised by one but not the other?  The answer – at least in part – is simple: it’s politics. There is no political force behind the use of learning styles. The damning of schools, teachers and leaders that use them costs no political capital for anyone involved: and it has the added bonus that learning styles have a whiff of failed progressive education about them that allows politicians and pundits to feel even better about sticking the boot in.

In contrast, grouping by prior attainment has very different political connotations. It is traditional; it is common sense; it is very far from progressive education. The policymakers and commentators in the social and traditional media may not want to admit it, but the silence around ability grouping is a silence not borne of evidence but of political agendas.

To be clear: the evidence is persuasive that learning styles approaches are at best neutral and at worst detrimental, as the link above indicates. I am not advocating using learning styles. Yet I can make exactly the same claims about attainment grouping.

The research evidence movement has been presented to the teaching profession as neutral, dispassionate and unbiased. And whilst that is arguable in relation to the provision of research evidence from organisations like the EEF, it is clearly not the case in relation to the use of research evidence by those in the political sphere. (It is worth noting here the new work of Becky Francis and colleagues – summarised here – on looking more deeply at why policy makers won’t hear the evidence, and an argument for a strong counter-narrative based on the call to science).

We are advised to treat claims about new approaches to education with scepticism; to dig under the surface and look for what evidence lies beneath. Sound advice. The implication of this short blog is that we need to apply the same healthy scepticism to the political discourse and media coverage of research evidence. We should dig below the surface for the political agendas that drive the focus on learning styles, but are silent on the evidence on attainment grouping.

Mike Coldwell is Head of the Centre for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Sheffield Institute of Education

Guinness, Scandinavian noir and getting out more

Reaching the parts that others don’t reach

SIOE has a global presence engaging with governments, universities, schools, students and lecturers across the planet. In the last year the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) led teacher professional and curriculum development in the EU (Chain Reaction, Engage, TEMI), Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Ghana, the Philippines and India. But other than passports, visa forms, cheap flights and airport food what’s involved?

Guinness – love it or hate it?

I hate it. I tried it but someone had swapped the beer for a sample of second-hand sump oil with a smear of fabric conditioner (Acacia flower and walnut) on top. When I complained to my drinking partner he explained that ‘Guinness doesn’t travel’ and that if I wanted to enjoy it I’d have to go to Dublin.

So, while the UK has a reputation for an innovative approach to education and inquiry and practical work in particular does what works in Rotherham work in Rajasthan (with a few culturally-respectful modifications)? Unlike Guinness?

Many of the issues are similar: stuff to cover (the curriculum) in a learning environment (the classroom or lab) moderated by adults (the teachers) to youngsters (the students). I regularly have conversations along the lines of ‘everyone is obsessed about examination results’ (India, Thailand, Malaysia) and ‘our curriculum contains too much content’ (everywhere!) or ‘we don’t have enough lab space’ (The Philippines, India). But this masks deeper differences. In India, there is no reference in their science curricula to inquiry skills. In the Philippines, I had a conversation where even the academic that had insisted that x (something about calculating the electric field around a point charge) should be in the curriculum could not give us a reason for this decision. So, too much ‘stuff’ is common but the exact type of ‘stuff’ and why it’s ‘too much’ varies everywhere.

What about the learning environment, the teachers and the students? We were told by a professor at the University of Tezpur in India that the biggest problem facing Indian education was teachers in rural schools who did not turn up for work. But we met teachers who were working hours that would shame the most committed of professionals anywhere. The Philippine Ministry of Education told us that, by the age of 11, 60% of students were routinely absent. Our suggestion of more ‘small group work’ in classes with an average size of 90 seemed a little misplaced! A teacher in Kuching, Malaysia told me that the school day for his students was 7:00am to 5pm. He then explained that they would also do 2 to 3 hours homework and that in 5 years no-one had ever failed to hand it in on time. I could have shared an extensive catalogue of homework non-compliance over many years teaching in Leicestershire where the school day was substantially shorter. Whether homework is useful is another issue but clearly students are very different in different parts of the world!

Scandi noir and international work … the connection is clear? Absolut! It’s the subtitles. You’re exploring the nature of inquiry with teachers in Bangkok and notice that the look of weary resignation you normally see has been replaced by complete bafflement. No, this isn’t bad preparation, it’s because they don’t speak English – or rather that you don’t speak Thai. It can make for a difficult session – and when they are poking at their laptops during your presentation believe that they are updating their Facebook status not looking up the Thai for ‘constructivism’ in Google translate.

You need to get out more

So, overseas work? A nightmare! Everywhere is different. You cannot even speak the local language.

Yet, while we don’t always understand what’s going on in the rural schools of Maharashtra, the slums of Manila or the international schools of Brussels, sometimes that activity from Pontefract sings beautifully in Pattaya and Pune. And the people you are working with are committed, patient with your fumbling explanations and possessed of an inexhaustible wealth of smiles for ‘One more photo!’ as you’re escaping to the airport! It’s exhausting, frustrating, exciting and good fun.

More importantly, it is only when I step out of the comfort zone of my own culture that I see it for the first time. Perspective is the wonderful, and unexpected, gift.

So … get out more! Look for projects with a global dimension, move your teaching/research commitments (if you can!), hang out with people who still have Euros/dollars/ringitts/baht etc. from previous trips (they’re the first to hear of opportunities). You may need your passport before you get chance to have second thoughts! Expect irritations, passport dramas, terrifying power sockets (I’m not plugging my iPad into that!), welcoming hosts, happy educational accidents (wow! we do that as well!), interesting conversations, intellectual stimulation, good fun and a collection of receipts in a variety of languages.

You will learn at least as much as the people you work with.


Or your money back.

Gareth Price is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Development and Research in Education (CDARE) at Sheffield Institute of Education

University can feel like a hostile place to Muslim students

This blog was originally published on The Conversation

British Muslims are among some of the most disadvantaged people living in the UK, and yet this is not a story many are familiar with. This is because despite the poverty, disadvantage and social immobility Muslims face, headlines that link the faith to crime or terrorism, or to forced marriage or honour killings, are much more common.

But the reality, as reported by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, is that the unemployment rate for Muslims in the UK is more than twice that of the general population – and the disadvantage is even greater for Muslim women.

On top of this, the committee also found that many Muslims face discrimination and Islamophobia, along with stereotyping, pressure from traditional families, and insufficient role models.

And a lack of social mobility – the ability of individuals, families or groups to move up or down the social ladder in society – seems to be a particular issue for British Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage.

Poor access to education

One of the main problems, is that young Muslims face disadvantage when they come to apply to higher education. This has been shown in research by the Nuffield Foundation, which revealed that those of Pakistani heritage are less likely to receive higher education offers compared to white British applicants.

For those Muslims students who do access higher education, the odds can be stacked against them. Students from most ethnic minority backgrounds don’t do as well as their white peers – even when they enter higher education with the same or better qualifications. And although data on religion is not routinely collected by universities it is likely that many Muslims students are underperforming.

Even when Muslim students do manage to get good grades, good jobs are not always on the horizon. A recent report showed that young Asian Muslims face a “broken social mobility promise”, with a lack of jobs outlined as a major issue.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women fare particularly badly in this area – which was detailed in the recent Casey Review.

This lack of employment is often made worse by racism, discrimination and the inherent bias faced by those from ethnic minority backgrounds at all stages of their careers. And this includes the move from education to employment.

Hostility on campus

As I reported to the MPs committee, Muslims students’ experiences of higher education are also not always positive. And religion is rarely valued on UK university campuses.

My recent book, Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America – co-authored with Kristin Aune from Coventry University – explains how universities are often self-consciously secular spaces. This can make those from religious backgrounds feel alienated. And university staff can also feel uncomfortable raising or addressing issues around religion.

Where debates around religion do exist, much of the discourse has drawn on a “moral panic” relating to the growth of fundamentalism and global terrorism. It has focused, in particular, on the threat posed by “Muslim young men”. And in response, ever increasing guidance has been provided to universities on how to tackle violent extremism on campus.

It is unsurprising then that universities can feel like hostile places to Muslim students, which, as my previous research shows, can shape their sense of belonging on campus. Muslim students are of course not the only religious group who find the higher education campus to be, at times, a hostile space. Nor is this a solely British phenomenon.

Implementing change

With this in mind, our book makes a series of recommendations. This includes giving university staff religious literacy training so that they feel equipped and empowered to talk about religion.

Students could also be drawn upon to present different viewpoints on religion. And religious perspectives should be included more often in class discussions. This could help to open these discussions up to both scrutiny and challenge, as well as understanding.

Our call for greater recognition of religious perspectives is not to deny that religion gives rise to conflict – it can and it does. But it is clear that engaging with discussions around religion is a key step to achieving greater equality in the UK.

Jacqueline Stevenson is Head of Research at Sheffield Institute of Education

How to get the best from practical work

Practical work is, again, in the science education spotlight, with findings from a recent Wellcome Trust study suggesting that recent changes to assessment at GCSE are leading to more and more pupils missing out on practical work in science.  The fact that science is, as the report states, an inherently practical subject, increases the mystifying decline in practical activity.

The study’s findings show that practical work is highly valued by school students, with over half saying that they wanted to do more. Indeed, practical activities are seen as a key part of learning science by everyone involved in science education. Findings from numerous research studies, including our own, show that practical work plays an important role in student engagement, in classroom management and in improving students’ likelihood to go on to further study of science subjects. Universities and employers alike value the skills of problem solving and group work, as well as the technical skills, that are developed through hands-on practical activities, and schools invest large amounts of money into laboratory equipment and technicians support.

However, the contribution which practical work makes to learning the subject matter of science remains in some doubt. A number of studies, such as those carried out by Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams at the University of York, suggest that it may be largely ineffective in improving learning about scientific concepts or processes. Last year’s PISA results supported this, showing an apparent correlation between a greater frequency of practical-based approaches and lower performance in science. Indeed, all of us who work in science education have observed teachers (and have probably been guilty ourselves of) using practical work as a reward for good behaviour, or – worse – withdrawing it when a class becomes difficult to manage.  This means that practical work’s role in the classroom can be perceived as an optional extra rather than an integral contributor to learning, despite what teachers say about how much they value it.

The Wellcome Trust’s study highlights another problem with practical work: the ease with which it can be reduced to a recipe-following procedure.  Around a fifth of the students surveyed said that they often simply following instructions without understanding the purpose of the work.  Indeed, our work on Improving Practical Work in Science a few years ago showed us how often teachers struggled to explain exactly why they are carrying out a particular practical, instead simply following the scheme of work or recycling the same old activities from year to year.

In the Sheffield Institute of Education, we have worked on many projects worldwide which centre on practical work and inquiry in science. This has shown us again and again how professional development for teachers is vital to getting past the idea of practical work as simple hands-on procedures so that it becomes a minds-on, thought-provoking process of learning.

We have found that it takes little prompting for teachers to realise that they can and should treat practical work like any other classroom activity, so that they consider its contribution to student learning and decide how best to assess this. For example, illustrating to primary school teachers how they can use their school grounds for practical work in science enables them to feel the confidence to take their students for a walk outside, drawing on scientific skills of hypothesising, observing and analysing.  And as part of our Chain Reaction project, supporting teachers to design and engage in scientific inquiries enabled them to observe the enjoyment of students from twelve European countries in designing and conducting their own experiments, acting as scientists including even presenting their findings at international conferences.

School leaders and governments often appear to believe that equipping schools with piles of new equipment is a route to high quality practical work.  We know, though, that the best practical work may not be the most sophisticated in terms of practical equipment or complex skills.  Sometimes the most interesting practicals stem from a lack of equipment, such as teachers we’ve worked with in Ghana who, following professional development, rustle up an engaging and meaningful practical for a class of sixty students with some babies’ nappies, scissors and plastic bowls!

By improving teachers’ confidence through professional development, they feel more able to take a few risks. They use a greater range of practical activities, adapting them to student needs and expertise, and move beyond simple recipe-following procedures to truly scientific activities which are both hands-on and minds-on.  It is possible that, following professional development, teachers may end up doing less practical work but it will almost certainly be of a higher quality, so that it contributes not just to behaviour management but also to learning science.

Current changes to the assessment of practical work are once again raising the question of the purpose of practical work.  These changes pose a threat to practical work in potentially limiting the variety of practicals on offer in schools and reducing its contribution to learning to a tick-box exercise.  As yet, though, we are keeping our minds open about the impact of these changes.  We’re just beginning a research study in which we will ask teachers and their students about their experiences of practical work under the current GCSE system.  We hope that our findings will help us to better understand the role of practical work and its value in supporting students to learn science.  If you would like to be involved and to share your experiences, please get in touch and let us know.

Dr Emily Perry is Deputy Head of the Centre for Development and Research in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education

Dr Stuart Bevins is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education