Research

- areas of interest -

Student to student relationships

Stimulating and nurturing relationships between young people matters. We know from research that students need to feel connected to school, and that those who are, and who feel cared for by peers at school, are happier, healthier and achieve better academic outcomes. What we see in what we might call ‘relational schools’ is the intentional provision of a variety of opportunities for students to make and sustain relationships with one another. Our data collection methodology is designed around a framework of questions constructed to draw attention to the web of relational factors which surround the student, and to critically engage with those interests. The data we collect provides an indication of the quality of relationships between different cohorts of pupils, in different schools. It also provides a comparison between scores among cohorts of students in different classes in a given year, and between different years in the same school. These differences in the absolute levels of Relational Proximity may be attributed to a wide range of social factors (i.e. socio-economic background of the students) or to the specific working practices of the school.

Student to teacher relationships

The student-teacher relationship is self-evidently critical in a school context. Where that relationship is strong and proximity in the five domains is high, then the connectedness, belonging, understanding, mutual respect and shared identity will enable effective learning and engagement. Our research also suggests that strong relationships in the classroom can mitigate for dysfunctional relationships outside of the school, countering disadvantage and providing a platform for improved social mobility.

Teacher to student relationships

Where teachers perceive their relationship with their students as strong, and score proximity highly in the five domains, then the stage is set for them to focus on the business of learning, whatever the curricular context. Where our results indicate that teachers feel they know their students well, understand their needs, and share a sense of purpose, they can then more readily personalise their approaches, and use their authority in ways that build participation and self-respect. Our benchmark data for this measure can be used to explore the impact of curricular or other strategic school choices on relational quality.

Classroom culture and pedagogical approach

The ability to develop solutions in the light of both teacher and student knowledge of the relational dynamics of the classroom presupposes that they both are in a position to acquire such knowledge. That was tremendously difficult in the past, but our innovative research approach not only invites reflection by both parties of the relationship (teachers and students as individuals) but the opportunity to come together and examine that relationship in way that was previously impossible. Rarely do we find consensus high between teachers and their students but rather, and perhaps more helpfully, we uncovered what has been termed a state of pseudo-concord; a starting point to begin a conversation characterised by partial agreement and a willingness to make that relationship better. It is unsurprising that those thinkers and practitioners in the field of restorative justice have been keen to engage with our work.

Parental Engagement

School improvement and school effectiveness research consistently shows that parental engagement is one of the key factors in promoting student achievement. Schools that improve and, sustain improvement, engage the community and build strong links with parents. Where schools build positive relationships with parents and work actively to embrace racial, religious, and ethnic and language differences, evidence of sustained school improvement can be found (Goodall and Vorhaus, 2010).

Believing that families can, and do, play a vital role in a child’s education, we support schools in building strong links between school and home and enable parents and carers to enhance their child’s development particularly those vulnerable parents who are traditionally hard to reach. Collaboration is not sufficiently understood from the view of one side of the relationship. Our metrics provide a relational view of the partnership and promote a facilitated dialogue which seeks to understand whether a school could learn something about itself and how it might improve by talking to, and really engaging with, its parental stakeholders. Having measured the relationship between the key points of contact (i.e. parent-form tutor or guardian-class teacher) we take a subset of both groups to explore the results together and ask the question: “what do we do next”? The intention is to revisit the assessment six months later to explore whether there had been improvement.

Research for Organisation Development (OD)

OD is a planned, sustained and systemic change-effort to improve the efficacy and health of an organisation, through research and other forms of intervention. It is organisation-wide, and so must be led ‘from the top’, but if it is to be effective, any change initiative must engage people throughout the ‘system’. Our approach is dialogic and entirely developmental, supporting people in organisations (schools) to function and flourish as human beings rather than as resources in a process of production. It is about intentionally creating an environment in which people are engaged as active and influential agents, in challenging and fulfilling work.

So, within the framework of these values, our research objectives might focus on the level of trust among employees so that it can be improved, or to explore the root causes of problems and conflicts so that they might be confronted instead of ignored. We might look at the level of co-operation and engagement within teams, or the degree of alignment between what people are really working on and what the school intends to achieve in its organisational vision and culture. We do this by engaging (consulting) deeply with the organisation, and where appropriate, measuring its key prioritised relationships. Although teaching is a highly social and interpersonal profession, teachers often find themselves working within highly isolated school structures. We can explore the contributing factors that cause teachers to benefit from collaboration or cause them to resist it.

Relationships between organisations

The Relational Proximity Framework - either on its own or in conjunction with other relational measures - is applicable to relationships between organisations, as well as between people in one organisation. This is vital, for example, in a system where schools or school trusts operate in close geographical proximity, and therefore need to work together (rather than compete) for the benefit of the community they serve.

Projects like this typically involve three phases: designing the change management approach through surveying the relational environment, implementing the change through facilitated direct contact with the three parties and examining the change through follow up surveying.

Surveying the relational context - we would seek to map the complex web of relationships in and between the organisations, and identify those that are the most critical and influential at all levels of seniority and from all parts of the organisational structure. We would then brief these people and measure their relationships using the survey tools. The outcomes would be fed-back to a working group through a workshop, which would then design a change process to address the issues identified.

Interventions for change - the aim of our activity - including the research itself - is to understand the relational context, and thereby improve it; to both facilitate more cooperative and collaborative working, and develop the capacity to sustain relational momentum. Through workshops and other team-focused interventions, we seek to enable and empower participants to overcome issues independently together rather than being dependent on ‘management’.

Evaluation - we measure again after an agreed period (usually around 20 weeks) to evaluate the impact of our interventions on the same previously prioritised relationships. This second survey of the relational environment also gives insight into what further improvements could be made in the system.

Impact evaluation

Using the Relational Proximity Framework tool, we engage in impact evaluation for clients and partners assessing the changes that can be attributed to a specific intervention or way of working. That could be a project, a programme or a school policy approach. In contrast to the more popular outcome monitoring approach schools take, which examine whether targets have been met, our impact evaluation is structured to respond to the question: how would participants’ relationships or well-being have changed if the intervention had not been undertaken? Impact evaluations seek to answer cause-and-effect questions. In other words, they look for the changes in outcome that are directly attributable to a system decision or way of working.

The trouble for schools is that the changes they wish to measure tend to be tacit; part of observed culture, and therefore resistant to empirical scrutiny. Thankfully, we specialise in the measurement of the seemingly intangible!

Take ‘character development’ for example. In our work with partners in this field, we go through an initial scoping phase, working with the client to map the sub-facets of our tool to specific attributes, characteristics or behaviours an organisation is seeking to develop. So in our work with the Challenger Trust (you can read more here), following the intervention, students began to demonstrate certain character strengths such as determination and commitment, optimism and gratitude, as well as acquiring heightened emotional intelligence, through their relationships with each other and with their teachers. We carefully mapped the types of characteristics the schools hoped to develop during the intervention, to the data we took before and after the expedition. Whilst we weren’t measuring ‘character’ as such, we could map the development of certain virtues.