How well did the mentors fulfil their potential?
Across ESOL, GCSE resit and Functional Skills projects, there was evidence that learners could be roused from demotivation and passivity and gain self-belief in their achievements and potential. Teachers used the project opportunities to begin to know their learners in much greater depth, and to better understand the barriers that learners were experiencing. In terms of quantitative progress, twelve projects generated 41 reports, and each is underpinned by case records of learner journeys, including examples of learners’ work, teacher strategies and resources, and teacher accounts of their personal experience. These well-written reports are each animated by appendices where other practitioners can find materials to help their own decision-making.
One can also see the added value that Strand Leads and mentors have provided in the improved quality of the evidence that projects produced:
1. Projects drew upon a wider range of evidence from beyond the sector.
The influence of the mentors can be seen where projects drew on emerging good practice from beyond our own sector. The mentors encouraged projects to engage with practices from schools and outside agencies (such as oracy approaches and use of visualisers). Mentors also introduced variations on established approaches (e.g. scaffolding and mnemonics) from other settings, and advised how they might be tested in our sector settings to develop partners’ practitioner research. Experienced mentors guided projects to draw upon practice and ideas fromProfessional Exchange Networks, and they also drew on learning from earlier OTLA projects to offer new avenues and facilitate progress.
2. Mentors encouraged projects to test received opinions
Mentors also gave projects the confidence to test ideas from the research community rather than accept them uncritically and obediently. Mentors invited projects to test approaches (such as strategies recommended in the post-16 Phonics toolkit) and to adapt them to a range of vocational contexts, from prison education to Community SEND. They also encouraged projects to critically challenge over-simplistic mantras about mindset or resilience so that teachers could integrate principles into their practical planning in challenging contexts. Some projects also questioned the authority of established literature (e.g. Hattie 2015) by providing evidence of the impact of volunteers supporting teachers.
3. Practitioners sustained their inquiries in action research cycles.
Staff in our sector always seem under pressure and some projects bend to pressure, curtail research activities and submit a minimal report with token evidence. In this programme, the majority of organisations have engaged wholeheartedly in sustaining risk-taking and exploration, and there are valuable examples of teachers acknowledging “What didn’t go as planned”, and outlining the limitations of their research activities.
There are also engaging examples of practitioners’ personal accounts of teaching dilemmas, illustrating what they have learned through their new relationships with learners and with colleagues in different roles and different subject areas. The quality of these measured reports, illuminated by insightful personal accounts from individual teachers, indicates their significant professional development. Many have offered reflective accounts which evidence how they have risen above their need to defend their former practices as they have become more responsive to learners.
I would argue that the examples of sustained inquiry and self-reflection in project reports result from the continuing support by mentors which has stimulated practitioners’ capacity to do research, and this has validated practitioners’ emerging identities as practitioner-researchers.