Action research

During its initial five-year action research phase, Learning Away involved a committed group of 60 schools – each developing new and exciting residential programmes.

Action research is an investigation conducted by and for practitioners. It draws on teachers’ experience and expertise to develop, analyse and refine their own practices, with the aim of improving outcomes for students, staff and the wider school. Learning Away schools have developed and trialled a wide range of approaches to residential learning, and the current evaluation of the impact these have had back in school was undertaken over a five year period, with the final report from the first phase of Learning Away released in June 2015. Read the summary or download the full report here.

Residential models developed by the school partnerships during this action research phase included a variety of camping residentials (on school sites, locally or further afield, ranging from ‘back to basics’ to ‘glamping’), youth hostelling, partnering with outdoor education and heritage providers and school exchanges. Schools were part-funded by PHF to:

  • support direct costs of their residential models (apart from covering staff to attend) over the first four years of the programme – these funding levels tapered off in Year 4 and partnerships were totally self-funding in Year 5
  • support staff to plan and evaluate residentials, and attend networking events throughout the five years of the programme.

Each partnership of schools had a distinct identity and was focused on the challenges and themes relevant to their particular context, including: Key Stage 2/3 transition; GCSE and core subject attainment; resilience, confidence and wellbeing; community cohesion; student leadership; curriculum development (or redesign); raising aspiration; family support; and cultural diversity.

Visit our school profile pages to learn more about the individual partnerships and projects.

Towards the end of this first phase of Learning Away, the partnership coordinators met to reflect on their experience of the programme through an action research lens. They found the following aspects particularly important:

The length of the programme (five years) was seen as critical to its success.

It was felt that this length provided sufficient time and opportunities to build up the passion, drive and enthusiasm required to embed the programme, and also sufficient time to change mind-sets.

It also gave schools the time and space to take risks and experiment with what they were delivering. Coordinators felt that this had resulted in the development of residential programmes which were much more embedded within the school and the delivery of the wider curriculum.

At least twice each year, the PHF Learning Away initiative brought staff from the school partnerships together from across the UK to network, share their experiences and ideas, and collaborate to solve any challenges they faced.

The chance to work with schools with a similar mind-set, both locally and nationally, provided an important impetus for involvement in the programme:

“It’s the community of practice that was one of the draws.”

Learning Away Coordinator

“Although the money drew the eye in the first instance, once we got to think about it in a deeper way, it was also about the opportunity to work with others”.

Coordinators saw these networking events as invaluable opportunities for them to be inspired by their colleagues. The events made staff more ambitious about what they were trying to achieve, helped them to question their current practice, improve their residential practice and develop their residential and whole school curricula more widely.

“What we learnt from other partnerships makes you think and makes it so much more real when you’re talking to someone about it – you think ‘I could do that’. We test things out that we’ve talked to you [another cluster] about.”

“It [Learning Away] became much more ambitious as we heard what others were doing, for example more focused on raising attainment. From that we looked at the leadership development programmes and then linked it into interdisciplinary learning. So it evolved into something with richness which, in the first instance, was not there.”

Coordinators acknowledged that the opportunities for staff to plan and come together to share learning would not have happened without the funding provided as part of Learning Away.

“Learning Away helped us focus on developing our residential programmes because it gave us time to focus on the work and funding to release teachers to take time out of the classroom and think about the best way forward.”

Learning Away Coordinator

Funding was seen as a critical facilitator in terms of kick starting the programme but also in making it sustainable because it allowed schools and clusters to test their approaches and develop alternative funding strategies for the future.

Partnership coordinators received one-to-one critical friend support from the Learning Away team to support them in developing, and challenging them to extend, their residential programmes. The team helped schools develop their own thinking and ambition about residential learning, at the same time as keeping them on track with the overall aims and objectives of the programme:

“If I’m having a meeting with [Learning Away Team member] it makes you really think about how you plan… what you’ve done and what you want to achieve, what’s good about it, how we can make it better? It really focuses your thinking on what the next stages of the programme are.”

Partnership schools worked closely with our external evaluators – the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Evaluation (CUREE) during Years 1 and 2, and York Consulting in Years 3 to 5 – to gather evidence of the impact of their programmes. For more detail about how programmes were evaluated and their impacts, see our evaluation pages.

Coordinators felt that their partnership’s involvement in the evaluation had been valuable, particularly in relation to developing approaches to evidencing impact in school, and some schools had continued to use some of the tools provided by CUREE after the end of Year 2. Individual headteachers said that involvement in the evaluation had made them more focused on evaluation and evidencing outcomes than they were prior to involvement in Learning Away.

“As a headteacher five years ago I wasn’t having to answer that ‘so what?’ question. It has shifted our thinking – so not thinking after we’ve done something ‘How are we going to evidence that?’ Instead, we are thinking all the time ‘How am I going to show that? What’s the best way to present this? How will we find out what students think?’ It’s strengthened pupil voice… it’s made me look at pupil voice differently.”

“As a group we’ve developed a language that is more evaluation focused… It’s changed how we work.”

Coordinators also felt that involving students and staff in the evaluation facilitated their engagement in the overall programme, raised the profile of Learning Away within schools and gave them a better understanding of how the residential was connected to the delivery of the curriculum. Coordinators commented that both students and staff benefited from being involved in the evaluation by being able to voice their opinion and by feeling valued, i.e. that someone wanted to know their opinion.

“The focus groups and case studies have worked really well… it has got the children and staff fired up about it and people talking… and sitting in and listening to them has been really insightful”.

Learning Away Coordinator

“The children love it when they [Learning Away coordinators] come and speak to them. They love telling someone new about what they are doing. It also raises the importance of it – someone from outside coming to see you”.

“It’s been really good having someone else speak to the children – they won’t be as honest with us… It’s a much more even playing field where they can say whatever they think/feel”.

Coordinators also used evaluation data from Learning Away to inform their school’s learning and their own professional learning, either informally or through postgraduate courses.

Between 2013-15, the school partnerships worked collaboratively with us to develop and publish free, practical tools and resources to support other schools to develop their own high-quality residentials. These include a series of filmed interviews, which are spread throughout this site and explain some of the key considerations when designing a brilliant residential, a wide range of inspirational and practical case studies and eight free downloadable resources.

Find out more about how we are sharing our learning here.


Have a look at our theory about how change happens on brilliant residentials.

Read our recommendations for schools, providers, policy makers and researchers. 

Read our independent evaluation report.