Over the last few years we’ve worked with a number of schools helping them use research to understand how they’re performing, and how they’re perceived – from the point of view of their school community.  Here are some of our learnings – things we’ve noticed work well when designing and implementing a successful programme of school community research.


Implement an initial engagement stage

The most successful school engagement projects we’ve been involved in have included an initial engagement stage.  We’ve found for this type of research to have truly effective results a community effort is required – everyone needs to be on board to implement change, drive the strategic direction forward, and make it happen.  By engaging early on with the school community about the initiative all groups and key stakeholders within the school can feel involved and informed.

Schools have approached us for help in situations where they’ve conducted research by diving straight in and sending out an online survey without having communicated up front the purpose and process with their stakeholders, i.e. staff, students, parents. From our experience if you don’t gain the buy-in and support of the community, the whole exercise can prove to be a waste of time and effort.

Another advantage of an initial engagement stage is to inform and guide the research design for gathering feedback from the whole community. Talking with community groups and stakeholders aids understanding of relevant and important topics to be included in the feedback survey.

Be creative in planning the research to best fit the school’s needs

As above, the research will be a lot more effective if it engages the school community (the Board, management, staff, parents and students) so they feel part of the process, and therefore are more likely to buy-in to the findings and any action plans that come out at the end. So, time spent up-front thinking creatively about the most relevant ways of engaging with the different community groups within the school kicks the programme off well and contributes to a successful outcome and experience for all along the way.

Our approach to engagement with school communities often involves a mixture of research methods depending on the individual school’s needs. For example, workshops are an ideal way to gather views of staff and stimulate discussion, whereas a series of small focus groups with students can provide a safe and comfortable environment for young people to openly discuss topics with their peers, and for parents, focus groups or depth interviews may be appropriate.

Understanding the cultural diversity within the school is also important to consider when designing the programme, to ensure the views of all relevant groups are captured appropriately and sensitively.

When conducting research involving children under the age of 16 years it’s important to be aware of and follow research ethics guidelines relating to research with children. There are additional considerations such as obtaining appropriate consent and taking extra care when designing the research so parents/guardians feel comfortable and confident that when their child(ren) participate in the research their data is being used strictly for research.

Gather feedback from the whole community

It’s important to use an inclusive approach of gathering feedback from as many different people and groups as possible and be transparent about who is being invited to take part. While it may not be possible (or cost effective) to invite the whole parent group to attend focus groups, we often find that an online survey is ideal at capturing people’s views, as it can be easily distributed via email to the entire school community database– so that everyone is included.

However, as with all research it’s important to consider the needs of the participants. If internet penetration or access to a computer is low then other methods such as hard copies, newsletters and face to face interviews may be appropriate.

Consider confidentiality

We’ve been approached by schools who have conducted their own surveys and been disappointed with low response rates and sparse responses lacking in depth.  We believe this can often be attributed to participants having doubt about the confidentiality of their feedback. From our research we know that ensuring confidentiality for participants encourages greater participation rates and more open honest response. Staff, parents, and students will feel more inclined to say what they really feel if they know their answers are anonymous.  This can be achieved by using an independent party to conduct the research – distancing the school board and leadership team from the process of gathering the feedback and analysing the results can provide the reassurance required.

Share the insights

Once you’ve asked for your community’s feedback it’s important to acknowledge and thank them for it.   We encourage communicating/sharing the high-level insights with the community via appropriate communication channels, to let them know you have listened, and that their feedback plays a valuable role in helping to lead the school into the future and making informed decisions with their needs and concerns in mind. This helps to create a true sense of connection and collaboration.

Follow-up workshops to determine how to use the resulting insights

When the research findings are presented to the board, that often feels like the ‘end’ of the project, when in fact it’s really just the start of the next part of the journey – using the resulting insights to help make decisions, improve services/processes and streamline communication.

We encourage follow up workshops with the board and relevant stakeholders to brainstorm next steps and actions.

Check – has the research programme been successful?

Three key questions that can determine whether it has been a successful research programme:

  1. Is there a stronger sense of connection and collaboration within the school community? Asking the community for feedback and taking action with their input considered and at the heart of the decision-making process, lets them know the board is listening to and understands them.
  2. Does the board have an increased understanding of which factors have the highest or lowest impact on community perceptions and satisfaction with the school? Knowing what factors, if improved, would have the most impact, allows the board and leadership team to understand what to prioritise.
  3. Has the research provided impactful insights that can be used as input into strategic planning?

And finally, we encourage keeping the engagement loop active

Keep in mind the process doesn’t end once the research is complete.  Continuing to work together with the community and stakeholders to actively engage, share ideas, build trust and together make better decisions, results in an engaged community focussed on high achievement.