Research-Invested Schools – planning to emerge smarter and stronger from the pandemic

As the world grapples with COVID-19, countless initiatives, ventures and plans will be in abeyance. Yet, it is an opportune time for nations to take stock of education systems, accelerating and confirming organisational directions that will realise the transformative capacity of learning and teachers.

There is recognition of the increasing complexity of being an educator in an unremittingly knowledge-driven era. Spurred by the perceived need for evidence-based teaching to improve teaching practice and respond to the challenges of complex problem solving, schools and systems need to be more committed to building environments conducive to enquiry, knowledge sharing, and new ideas (Teo et al., 2021).

Considerable momentum is building around the belief that education will increasingly benefit from teachers becoming more ‘research-engaged’ (Godfrey, 2016). Handscomb and MacBeath, (2003, pp.3) suggested for schools to be research engaged, ‘research and enquiry is at the heart of the school, its outlook, systems, and activity’. The desired transition being advocated for is from viewing teachers mainly as consumers of expert knowledge produced elsewhere, to creators of knowledge in the context of schools as part of an ecosystem of expertise.

In Australia and elsewhere these trends, in parallel with a steady rise in Higher Degree Research participation (Universities Australia, 2020), have coalesced into something of a watershed moment. Hence, practicing classroom teachers, actively engaged in postgraduate research, aligns the worlds of research activity, researcher development, and their work in schools: ‘…in any active area of inquiry the current knowledge base is not in the library; it is in the invisible college of informal associations among research[ers]’ (Locke et al., 2009, p.48).

Affirming this alignment, Michael Fullan (2018) argues that many ideas come from engagement in change, reading and writing (not from research), and that 80 per cent of his best ideas came from lead practitioners – the message being that practitioners are actually the experts on education (rather than academics).

The phenomenon of Research-Invested Schools

What we have termed ‘Research-Invested Schools’ (RIS) – aligning with Handscomb & MacBeath’s definition above – are creating a climate of change in their valuing of and strategic commitment to carrying out research, rather than merely using it. They are investing in the transformative and translational capacities of staff; staff who are already conducting research ranging from action-based projects to postgraduate qualifications, addressing questions emerging from localised practice to those situated within the broader structures of schooling and education.

In an era in which there is strengthening demand for advanced cognitive skills and critical problem-solving capacity, this phenomenon of investment in research is of compelling interest.

In the last decade, a growing number of schools around the world have moved to embed ‘research-informed practice’ as a key part of their professional learning and improvement agendas. While research has long been happening in schools, this has often occurred on the periphery, as something done to schools rather than by schools. Breaking this pattern, we are aware of more than 30 Australian schools that have either established a ‘research centre’ or ‘institute’ of some description, or appointed a ‘research lead’ – often reworking an existing senior leadership role to explicitly focus on research. They are raising the expectation for schools as not just passive consumers of expert knowledge produced elsewhere, but genuine contributors to the knowledge economy.

Examples of Research-Invested Schools

The Pymble Institute at Pymble Ladies’ College in Sydney, New South Wales, supports research through its own ethics committee, a collaboration between students, teachers and academics. Staff and student research is published through their Illuminate and Perspectives journals. Similarly, the Barker Institute at Sydney’s Barker College publishes a journal of staff academic writing, hosts public events, and conducts its own research. One particular project concerns a longitudinal study following the journey of a cohort of students through 10 years at Barker. Skillset Senior College in Central-West NSW – a senior secondary school educating young people experiencing barriers to schooling –recently established a Research Institute which ‘aims to become a global leader in research into Alternative Schooling, Wellbeing, Education and Mental Health’.

Whilst most of the RIS in Australia are currently independent schools, there is good cause to see this phenomenon gaining wider traction as part of a broader challenge to the traditional model of schooling across all schooling sectors. Independent schools have the capacity to innovate and provide ‘proof of concept’, which in the past has led to wider scale change of schooling.

For example, in the US Advanced Placement tests were originally introduced by a handful of elite independent schools but have subsequently become used throughout the state sector (Toch & Tugend, 2021). In a similar vein, the UK experience suggests that strong partnerships between schools and supportive networks extends impact beyond the affluent. A 2016 study by the Education Development Trust identified 55 ‘research leads’ operating in the UK, many of whom were in comprehensive or academy schools. Supportive associations have arisen, such as the Research Schools Network, a group of 37 (mostly state) schools with a mailing list of over 2000 schools, and the researchED movement, which since its founding in 2013 has spread to host research gatherings around the world.

At the end of last year, The Scots College, Sydney, in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Research Training and Impact at The University of Newcastle, hosted a launch event that brought together colleagues leading research-invested schools around Australia and key voices from the wider education research community to explore this phenomenon, share successes and challenges, and form connections.

The event featured a panel discussion with leading education figures about the landscape of education research in Australia and abroad, and the significance of the rise of Research-Invested Schools, followed by vignettes from leading research centres in schools around Australia. The collective desire is to network and support schools to engage in research activity.

If you would like to share with us your school’s work on research-investment or are interested in learning from Research-Invested Schools as part of a network, please email


Fullan, M. (2018). Surreal Change: the real life of transforming public education. Routledge.

Godfrey, D. (2016). Leadership of schools as research-led organisations in the English educational environment. Cultivating a research-engaged school culture. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44(2) 301-21.

Handscomb, G. & MacBeath, J. (2003). The research engaged school. Essex County Council.

Locke, L. F., Silverman, S. J., & Spirduso, W. W. (2009). Reading and Understanding Research. SAGE Publications.

McAleavy, T., & Elwick, A. (2016). School Improvement in London: A Global Perspective. Education Development Trust.

Riggall, A. & Singer, R. (2016). Research Leads: current practice, future prospects. Education Development Trust.

Teo, C. L., Tan, S. C., & Chan, C. (2021). Pedagogical transformation and teacher learning for knowledge building: Turning COVID-19 challenges into opportunities. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 47(4), 1-26.

Toch, T., & Tugend, A. (2021, October 20). A Crusade to End Grading in High Schools. The Washington Post Magazine.

Universities Australia. (2020). 2020 Higher Education Facts and Figures.

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