Are concrete shoes the answer?

By Ben Durbin

Monday 22 September 2014

Picture the scene. You’re a headteacher faced with a persistent problem: year 6 boys running in the corridors. You’ve tried everything, and none of it worked.

But never fear: you’ve read the manuals and you know the drill. Reaching into your desk drawer, with the flourish of a well-trained professional, you pull out your Self-Improvement Gizmo and your Collaboration Widget (affectionately known as Sizigmo and The Cow to their friends).

Switching on both devices, they begin to whirr reassuringly. Red and blue lights flash in hypnotic, intersecting patterns, and it’s only the sound of the phone ringing that awakens you from your trance.

Sigizmo and The Cow
It’s the friendly headteacher from the secondary school across town. “Thank Sigizmo!” you cry, and begin grilling your friend on how they cope with athletically-minded pupils. And the reply you get is inspired – speed cameras in the corridors – brilliant! But potentially complicated and expensive to implement.

No sooner have you put the phone down and it rings again. This time it’s your chair of governors, who has recently joined twitter. Only that morning she had been participating in an impassioned debate on the merits of high-tech versus low-tech solutions to speeding pupils. It turns out that the majority of the participants had found traditional traffic calming measures (corridor monitors , speed humps, chicanes) to be much more effective.

Mulling over this fresh revelation, you type ‘corridor behaviour’ into Google and find a whole panoply of blogs and discussion forums. Clicking through page after page the most common solution seems to be giving pupils iPads. Sadly, in most cases these were shiny new iPads, substantially thinner and lighter than earlier models, and therefore of limited effectiveness in impeding corridor progress.

Finally, head spinning, you arrange a coffee with one of your educational suppliers, hoping for an off-the-shelf solution. The smartly-suited man nods sagely as you share your woes, before revealing a glossy brochure promoting the latest innovations in school footwear: concrete shoes. Available in three stylish designs (dove grey, stormy black and winter ash) they claim to achieve a 100 per cent reduction in pupil pace, come with a lifetime guarantee, and have a near-perfect safety record.

As soon as it’s polite, you make your excuses and leave bewildered. There are so many ideas, some showing promise, some clearly bonkers. If only there was a straightforward way to tell them all apart.

If only…
If only there was a more systematic, objective way to capture the collective knowledge and experiences of all the other schools who have faced similar problems to you. Not just the ones you know about, or who write popular blogs, but a representative national picture. And if only there were established ways to differentiate, without bias (commercial, cognitive or otherwise), between solutions that only worked in one school and those that worked in a hundred. If only there were mechanisms in place to mediate, organise and critically appraise the abundant offerings of your trusted allies, Sigizmo and The Cow.

Happily there is an answer: research. Research at its best can serve as the lingua franca of a self-improving, collaborative school system. It’s not an imposition on professional judgement; not a coup by academics supplanting politicians, simply replacing one set of dictators with another. Rather, research represents a powerful means to facilitating the conversation between schools, ensuring that genuinely best practice (in each context) diffuses throughout the system, and wins out over whatever is most loudly-supported or well-financed.

Of course there are challenges: ensuring that research addresses issues that matter to teachers; making it easily available in a way that supports application to practice; embedding research-use into the systems and language of education (from the classroom to the DfE and everywhere in between); and developing stronger partnerships between researchers and educators. Myself and colleagues have written previously about many of these issues, most recently in a guest post for The Key.

And while it doesn’t take a research-informed profession to dismiss concrete shoes as ridiculous, most of the decisions faced by teachers and school leaders are much less black or white. So to achieve the full potential of an education system led by professional educators, research engagement is crucial.