Evaluating the impact of the rural dimension of specialism
The rural dimension is intended to offer the opportunity to schools to enhance and extend the curriculum. Its focus is the understanding of environmental issues and the countryside, and it is seen as relevant to all schools, including those in urban areas. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) wishes to evaluate the extent to which the rural dimension is effective in raising standards. The aim of this study, commissioned by the SSAT, was to ascertain the extent to which the work schools undertake as part of their rural dimension has a demonstrable impact on achievement and attainment - in particular concerning: 1) attainment (pupil performance and school standards); 2) behaviour and attendance (on the part of pupils); 3) engagement (pupil interest and motivation, and raising aspirations among pupils and their families). The approach taken in the study is chiefly an interpretative and illuminative one with the aim of throwing light on how the rural dimension acts as an influence within the school context. Rather than looking for linear cause-and-effect, methodologically it was seen as more helpful to view organisations as complex processes of continual interaction in which any one initiative is the catalyst to multiple interpretations and reactions which generate further initiatives. Qualitative data are particularly helpful in throwing light on these processes. An exploratory case study approach was used, generating both qualitative and quantitative data in order to reflect the complexity of practice and experience in the rural dimension. Six case study schools were selected from rural dimension schools which expressed a wish to participate in the study. Criteria were used to maximise the variation in the sample used, although those with relatively large farms are over-represented. Each of the six case study schools was visited by one or more of the research team. Visits involved interviews, observation and perusal and collection of documentary data (including schools’ websites). This report also includes a selective literature review, highlighting some of the issues concerning research into specialisms and the value of education for sustainable development.