Self-improvement in an age of reduced resources

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Andrew Morris, member of the Learning and Skills Research Network and the Policy Consortium, discusses the implications of self-improvement, not improvement, for new FE body the Education and Training Framework.

Leaders of colleges judged outstanding by Ofsted inspectors say it can take four years to embed real and lasting change in the institution, its teachers and managers. From the inception of a seemingly good idea to improved results for students, a persuasive bank of evidence must be built through careful research and development.

Paul Wakeling, principal of Havering Sixth Form College, outlined such success at a gathering in London organised by the Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN). Allocating time, staff and resources; piloting work in departments without making it look like a privilege; coping with false starts while keeping everyone on side — it’s no easy task, he said and, just as significantly, ‘it’s certainly not in the Ofsted time frame’.

With more than 50 participants from colleges, universities and organisations such as the Association of Colleges, Education and Training Foundation (ETF), National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, City & Guilds and Edge, a strong consensus emerged on the need for continued research and development at college level.

It called, however, for a new kind of action research based on mutual support, with regular informal meetings of staff who are realistic about what can be achieved in the time available.

But with drastically reduced resources and greater demands on everyone in a new era of ‘flexibility and freedom”’from government, where’s the support to come from? Who has the time for research? And in what direction should it be taking us? With the demise of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), grants to free staff for such work have gone and, while the ETF supports research, it looks unlikely to be on the same scale.

It is not about two hours off timetable for research but inquiry carried out as part of the job.

The answer is both radical and necessary. We need a culture shift towards a longer-term approach with institutions developing their own strategy, not relying on government, using research evidence and carrying out action research. For many in FE, research is seen as a higher education activity that is remote. People are put off by the word and assume that it’s all high level stuff, while what it mainly consists of is systematic enquiry, research that enriches continuing professional development (CPD).

In the words of LSIS chair Dame Ruth Silver: ‘We are moving from an era of improvement to self-improvement.’

So, for the teacher and lecturer, it is not about two hours off timetable for research but inquiry carried out as part of the job. If the latest action research has taught us anything, it is that joint development through systematic enquiry works; simple ‘transfer of good practice’ doesn’t — or nowhere near as effectively.

So, it is about co-production (‘which is here to stay’ in the words of Professor Gareth Parry, one of the participants); developing a learning culture; institutions developing their own strategy, not relying on government; action research that is not only specific and local but also generic. Most of all, practitioners need time for research to play out and for interventions to prove their worth.

If this fails to fit Ofsted’s needs, then it is the inspectors who will have to rethink their practices.

So, what needs to be done? First, we must help people find pathways to research information. This means starting with practitioners’ genuine concerns. Second, it is essential to ’embed’ evidence-use and the ‘spirit of enquiry’ (this is not an activity for the few). Third, colleges must not develop in isolation; sharing evidence use between colleges and with universities and industry partners is essential. Fourth, the initiative calls for systematic practitioner enquiry and support to help people develop their skills in using research.

Colleges will need support from outside and there was a unanimous feeling at the workshop that LSRN should act as the independent, sector-based mediator, bringing organisations together and helping them formulate cost-effective ways to invest in using research evidence. There will be a clear need to demonstrate potential benefits to learners. There is also potential for the ETF to build on the Research Development Fellowships.

LSRN itself was asked to work with key organisations to develop a structure to support use of evidence in CPD, audit research activity, help develop key messages and look to other sectors and countries for supportive evidence.

Finally, this is a challenge also to ministers to live up to their word, and to opposition parties to endorse such an approach as a commitment to the freedoms and flexibilities promised to FE. We need fair time to prove that self-improvement works.

This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in FE Week of 23 October 2013.

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