The NSEE team at Berryhill Primary school. Photo credit: Stuart Hall.

From silo to network… how can collaborative action research in schools (the Network for Social and Educational Equity approach) operate on a practical level?

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) team has been working with Berryhill Primary School in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire for the last three years to help devise new ways to improve numeracy.

Staff at the school had noticed a dip in maths performance in Primary 4 (age 8-9). They wanted to focus on improving attainment for those pupils at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) level 1*.

The silo approach

Previously, pupils who struggled with numeracy would be take out of the class for focussed interventions with a learning support teacher. But there was little discussion with the class teacher about the work being done and how it aligned with the wider class activities, creating a silo approach to how the school dealt with numeracy issues.

Improving outcomes isn’t always the goal of collaboration, but rather about trying new approaches, testing existing theories about learning and sharing critical reflections in an open, safe space with peers.

Although Berryhill is based in North Lanarkshire, there was a lack of schools in their local surrounding area that had a similar deprivation profile. Through hooking up with schools in South Lanarkshire, they were able to find other schools with similar issues, i.e. the same deprivation level. This set the ball rolling on a three-year project that has yielded impressive results.

Increase in teacher confidence

During the first year of the collaboration, a small number of staff members from the school took part. Adopting different methods of teaching numeracy led to an increase in attainment and teacher confidence. The participants shared their experiences and findings with all the teachers, learning support teachers and classroom assistants at the school.

multi-coloured abacus
Photo by Skitterphoto

Based on the success of the initial approach, in year two more staff at the school used the methods adopted to teach numeracy. By the time the next year rolled round, everyone working at the school could see the benefits of collaborative action research projects as a way to improve literacy, numeracy and wellbeing, and they began working together on similarly styled projects.

What did Berryhill participants do? They:

  • shared best practice between schools (‘modelling good practice’)
  • took part in ‘learning walks’ (seeing different resources, shape of buildings, how pupils interact/play/learn)
  • understood the importance of dialogue (after the activity, getting teachers to come together to share their critical reflections)
  • planned these activities into the school day (and acknowledged the significant role of the head teacher in ensuring this happened in practice).

Creativity is the key to making such approaches work, and for staff to be flexible with both the school day and the pupils’ demands.

Local context

A crucial aspect of the NSEE collaborative action research approach is local context. Berryhill Primary recorded when significant events happened to their pupils—bereavement, a new baby in the family, a parent losing a job, moving to a new house, etc—and the impact on learning. They developed different ways of recording emotions at the start of the day.

How did Berryhill’s approach to tackling numeracy issues in the three years change? The school now works with parents, encouraging them to ‘stay and play’ to boost pupils’ confidence. They work with class teachers to ensure learning can be brought back into the class and come up with resources that pupils can take home to further boost their learning.

The rise in numeracy (are there figures?) speaks for itself, but teachers also report feeling more connected as a result of collaborative action research. They enjoy the community-building that is part of such research rather than working alone (from silo to network). It is now a whole school approach and Berryhill is leading the way for other schools in the North Lanarkshire area to devise new strategies to improve numeracy.

Benefits of participation in collaborative action research

In general, how can school staff benefit from participating in a collaborative action research project? Participation will:

  • raise confidence in data analysis (not just having a table, but being able to write a narrative about why the data looks like this)
  • raise classroom teachers’ confidence in critically reflecting on their own teaching practice
  • sharing best practice between schools who are experiencing similar issues
  • encourage the school to become more of a ‘network’ and less of a series of silos where class teachers work behind closed doors.

*The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is a tool for identifying the places in Scotland where people experience disadvantage across different aspects of their lives. It can be used to help organisations invest in the areas that need it most.