Collaborative Action Research in the time of COVID-19


By Jo Neary

NSEE bulbCollaborative Action Research (CAR) is one of the key approaches of our work here at the Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE).

Previously, the NSEE team would conduct stages of the CAR process face to face, working with schools or clusters of schools from the initial stages to the final stage where the schools devise an evaluation and reflection report.

The face to face work would include presentations, focussed workshops on specific methods, and attending meetings of teachers to facilitate the planning of the project. At the time of writing [April 2020], the schools we are working with have closed. Lessons are now being delivered to pupils online, with hub schools in place to serve the children of vulnerable families, and those of front-line workers.

Delivering CAR support when schools are closed

It left us with the question of how we can deliver CAR support when the schools are closed, and how we can reshape the support we give to schools who are still interested in CAR projects while they are also managing the demands of COVID-19.

Through discussions with local authorities, head teachers, and Education Scotland, we are currently creating tailored plans in each of the local authorities we work with. These will involve offering online Q&As where teachers can log-in and ask for specific advice about their projects, offering online seminars where the NSEE team will provide a short presentation about some of the methods that can be used in CAR approaches, and ongoing email support.

For those schools who are interested in continuing their CAR project but are finding it difficult to fit in with the new demands of online/hub-based teaching, it is possible for them to pause their projects, or to stop the project. For those nearing the end of their project, we can also offer support in writing the final one-page report of what worked and could be developed further.

Not an ‘off-the-shelf’ method

CAR is not an off-the-shelf method, nor is it a prescriptive approach to school improvement. Instead, it can be best described as a toolbox. Inside the toolbox are multiple methods and evaluation techniques for exploring what elements of their school day require support, how schools can make positive changes to these, and how they can monitor whether these changes are making an impact.

One of the main strengths of CAR is that the emphasis is on the process, and on building teacher confidence in research skills. We encourage participants to take risks in developing new evidence-based approaches.

In the past, we have supported schools using within-school CAR approaches, where teachers from different year groups have worked together on a CAR project that has the benefit of strengthening pedagogy. We have also supported teachers from different schools to work together on a shared issue.

A shared issue might be investigating the causes of a dip in test results in numeracy at a particular stage in children’s education.

Discussions and reflections

Both within and between school CAR projects follow similar steps, where the NSEE team facilitates discussions around what aspect of the school day or school performance they feel could improve and ask the teachers to reflect on the mechanisms that may be driving these issues.

Using school’s existing data (e.g. test results, attendance) we look to see if there are any patterns in the data that can help refine their ideas. From there, we support schools in developing small research projects. This could involve classroom observations, it might take the form of a small-scale intervention to boost outcomes (either academic or an aspect of wellbeing), or it could be something else.

These projects can be whole class, or could be focussed on a few pupils who may be seen to require some more support in the classroom. The final stage is a one-page report, where teachers are encouraged to critically evaluate what worked and what required further development, and what lessons they learned from this experience.

Now that face-to-face contact is out of the window for the time being, it will be fascinating to see how our new approach develops and we look forward to rolling it out to the local authority areas we already work with and beyond.

If you have any questions regarding online CAR approaches, or on the ongoing work of NSEE in Scotland please email our team at

Dr Jo Neary is a research associate with the NSEE team based at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include how social policy influences people’s experience of neighbourhood, education, and health; and the role of education in developing supportive systems for young people. 

Follow her on Twitter @joanne_neary



We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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