We are asking school research champions to do an impossible job. This isn't a poor reflection of the professionals in these roles – the job is simply too much for one person.
There are three aspects to being a research champion: identifying and analysing data and research; linking up and exchanging ideas between professionals (from policymakers to researchers and practitioners); and building capacity to embed research in the profession. How reasonable is it to expect one person to do all this?
In their 2016 study, The Dark Side of Knowledge Brokering, researchers at the University of Manchester looked at the challenges "knowledge brokers" in healthcare face when trying to embed evidence-based practice. Many of the findings have parallels in schools, where research champions can also face numerous barriers.
Firstly, the skills required to be a research champion are vast. They need to have the ability to find, analyse and digest research, to communicate it effectively, coach and mentor colleagues, implement research or ask others to – and that's just for starters.
They have to be more than just research-literate – they also need good pedagogical knowledge to understand how the research affects teachers. Then they need excellent managerial skills to link up the various educational professionals and maintain credibility with them.
Even if such people do exist, there aren't enough of them to go round England's 20,000-plus schools. The researchers from Manchester argued that healthcare needs to switch from knowledge brokers to knowledge brokering – in the case of schools, this means moving away from research champions to research championing.
Here's an idea of how school leaders can establish teams of research champions in their schools.
The researchers at developed a table showing how knowledge brokering can wayleigh some of the problems of relying on a sole champion. I have adapted their points below for a school setting:
Essential questions to ask of your research championing team
- Tensions between the different aspects of the role
- Does the team have the combination of skills required for the realisation of all three aspects research championing?
- What skills are currently lacking and how can they be developed?
- What incentives will support the engagement of a school, department or multi-academy trust (MAT) chain in building capacity around research?
- What arrangements are in place to ensure that knowledge makes it into practice?
- Tensions between different types and sources of knowledge
- How will the brokered knowledge integrate with existing ways of doing things in your school?
- How can an adequate mix of research, school data, stakeholder views and practitioner expertise and other forms of knowledge be considered in the team?
- Does the team have credibility with teachers, support staff, managers, leaders, governors, trustees and external researchers?
- How can individuals already championing research informally be identified and engaged?
- Tensions caused by the "in-between" position of research champions
- Are all stakeholder interests represented in your research champion team?
- What procedures are in place to support the recognition, promotion and career development of research champions?
- What arrangements are in place to spread the knowledge or more experienced champions to novices?
- What support structures, such as professional learning communities or peer support groups, are available?
How to build a team to champion research
The researchers suggest two steps to developing a knowledge brokering team. The first is to draw on professionals with a range of backgrounds and skills that complement each other. This will give the team the broad skills needed to fulfill the various aspects of the role and, in all likelihood, will involve drawing on the expertise of school leaders, heads of department, teachers and support staff.
Then school leaders need to recognise that championing research is a fundamental part of their role – not just something that can be passed on to others. Research championing needs to be as important as other duties, which means giving resources to help champions fulfil their roles. School leaders will also need patience: developing the skills, knowledge and experience of a research championing team will not happen overnight.
The role of the school research champion is almost impossible so schools need to find innovative ways to champion research. Building teams to do this within schools or MATs may be one way forward – and is worthy of further consideration within the changing educational landscape.