Recruiting and retaining schools

Ann Dowker and Graham Sigley suggest that marketing approaches provide a valuable model when involving schools in research

Over recent years in England, there has been a very significant increase in targeted funding to support the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in publicly funded schools, and to close the gap between them and their peers, with much of the funding being in the form of the Pupil Premium. Alongside the use of Pupil Premium funding, schools are being encouraged to make use of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which is designed to help schools to identify and introduce effective practice. It incorporates analyses of education-based research and is complemented by further work of the EEF to extend the content of the toolkit.

As part of this approach, the EEF is funding research projects where the measured outcome is the impact that the project has on pupil attainment. The rigour and quality of this developing evidence is being strengthened by the use of independent external evaluators and randomised controlled trials (RCTs). As part of this approach, though, the EEF also identifies that the biggest risk to strengthening the toolkit through such research projects is that of the under-recruitment of schools and pupils. As a result, if there are not a sufficient number of participants at the start of a project then attrition or school drop-out could lead to the validity and reliability of any resulting data being open to question. In extreme cases, the whole project may be invalidated. The significance of this challenge of recruiting schools to participate successfully in high-quality research projects has also been reinforced repeatedly by contributors to the series of seminars supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and run by the Institute for Effective Education.

Key factors in successfully recruiting schools

As a response to this issue, the EEF has already produced a recruitment and retention pack, which outlines approaches that project deliverers and evaluators can use to maximise school recruitment. This guidance, which is based on feedback from EEF project participants, categorises the relative effectiveness of the different techniques for recruiting schools as follows:

  • Most effective – visits to schools; third party connections (eg, local authority); the use of personal contacts.
  • Somewhat effective – emails, phone calls, letters.
  • Less effective – adverts.

… while suggesting that no one single approach is likely to be effective. It is also important, though, to bear in mind the importance of retaining the schools throughout the whole research process. The success of this second, but equally important, aspect will be dependent on the nature of the relationship that is created and maintained between the project deliverers and the schools.

Marketing not advertising – creating a successful schools recruitment model

This suggests that the process of recruiting and retaining participant schools is more than just advertising and is actually very similar to a high-quality marketing approach.

Advertising is geared towards a single product, service or opportunity and, in this case, may be done through newspaper and magazine advertisements, flyers, emails, web advertisements or cold calls to potential clients. Catch Up®1 has previously used a number of these approaches to recruit schools to participate in research projects.

Marketing covers a broader range of activities, including research, advertising, sales, public relations, and customer service and satisfaction. On reflection, it is clear that the relationships that Catch Up developed with successful project schools, where schools stayed with a project through to and beyond the publication of the final evaluation report, included all aspects of marketing, with the advertising that Catch Up did being one part of a more strategic approach.

Before initial emails or telephone calls were made to schools, we undertook research to look for key strategic contacts where there was a high likelihood of mutual benefit for the contact and Catch Up. Lead staff in local authorities, leading senior decision makers in academy chains or teaching school partnerships, for example, were identified and initial emails sent. These were then followed up by one or more telephone calls. The resulting conversations often led to the identification of areas of development for schools or groups of schools that could be enhanced by the schools participating in the proposed research project.

Some of the more generic school priorities were then incorporated into email flyers and sent to schools that made enquiries about the Catch Up interventions or to schools where Catch Up colleagues had contacts through other work. Again, these were followed up with telephone calls and the offer of a school visit. This targeted email advertising was effective as part of the overall approach.

Once initial, meaningful conversations had taken place, Catch Up followed this up by providing full information about what participation would involve. This set out all the expectations and the requirements, including the importance of control groups and impact testing, along with a timeline with milestones. A project protocol or memorandum of understanding was agreed between Catch Up and the school. This set out their respective responsibilities and was signed off by the head teacher and a governor.

All project schools were assigned a project adviser who visited the school and also monitored pupil group testing arrangements. In one project which involved individual testing, Catch Up provided research assistants to go into the schools and test the pupils. A key part of this “customer service and satisfaction” approach was to look for opportunities to minimise any administrative requirements at a school level that resulted from the project. We made it clear throughout the research projects that the priority was to complete the project to the high standards required while minimising any negative effect on the pupils and the school. A member of the Catch Up administrative staff also kept in regular contact with the named lead in each school, including flagging up project milestones in advance.

On reflection, it is not recruiting schools to participate in research that is the new challenge but to be able to recruit schools in sufficient numbers with a strong commitment to the research. This challenge will become even greater as more and more projects are commissioned and the number of research-orientated schools not involved in a project reduces.

An additional problem is that a significant number of schools will have short-term or long-term stresses that may interfere with their participating or persisting in such research projects. Such stresses may include staff illness; chronic understaffing; school reorganisation and/or extensive building work; and Ofsted inspections, especially in the case of schools that are rated as “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”. This means that the very schools that might benefit most from interventions are often excluded or opt out from such schemes. It also means that research studies may be hampered by sampling biases.

Next steps

The above process developed organically as we responded to the challenge of recruiting schools, and the strength of this process is demonstrated in a number of project schools now becoming “Catch Up schools”, with some applying for Catch Up Excellence Awards. Excellence Award schools are committed to the value and benefits of high quality data, both process-based qualitative data and quantitative impact data based on standardised tests.

It would seem feasible to review the various aspects of our own experiences and, along with further research of the experiences of other projects and the ESRC presentations, develop a schools recruitment template that is built around a strategic marketing approach. Such an approach could be trialled as the first stage of a research project and be monitored, evaluated, and reported on separately to the research project itself. The resulting messages would be disseminated and made available to the wider research community.

While an approach that is applicable to every context is extremely unlikely to be the outcome, it may be that an appropriate framework could deliver a significant proportion of the work that needs to be done to recruit schools. This could have significant savings in project staff time.

Alongside this approach, the wider dissemination of the framework and the expectations on schools could help to increase the number of schools that are prepared to actively seek to participate in projects. 1Catch Up® is a not-for-profit UK registered charity (1072425).

Catch Up® is a registered trademark in the UK (2563819).

About the authors

Ann Dowker is University Research Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford and lead researcher with Catch Up Numeracy. She can be contacted at

Graham Sigley is Deputy Director of Catch Up. He can be contacted at


November 2015