A sea change in evidence?

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Andrew Morris reports from a recent LSRN meeting on FE’s growing use of evidence

If South Staffordshire College, Thurrock Adult Community College and HMP Dovegate are anything to go by, a significant change in the use of evidence is indeed taking place across the FE sector. Teachers and managers from these and many other organisations discussed the practicalities of using research at the latest workshop of the Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN).

As participants heard, loud and clear, the sector is not alone in this: evidence-based approaches are rising up the agenda right across the public services. From healthcare and social care to the police and probation services, sound research is being mobilised to strengthen practice. The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, the College of Policing and the Alliance for Useful Evidence – all established within the last five years – bear witness to this recent upsurge.

In education, the remarkable success of the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Toolkit’ of evidence-based practices in teaching and learning has been used by over half of secondary schools in its three years of existence. Numerous organisations are now helping get the right kind of evidence in the right format to those who need it most: practitioners and decision-makers at the frontline.

What this means in practical terms for the learning and skills sector is illustrated by the work of Michael Smith and Paul Roberts, team leaders at Barking and Dagenham College. Having identified an important college-wide issue — initial assessment procedures that assigned too many students to the wrong level — they set about collating information, looking at existing research and proposing a new approach to the senior team. With their support, a pilot scheme was developed and carefully tested. As Michael expresses it, “We were then able to move forward with knowledge and understanding from the testing.”

Chris Davies, director of curriculum at South Staffordshire College, reinforces the importance of first identifying a serious college-wide problem and then taking an evidence-based approach. A study he had undertaken revealed that 40% of staff non-teaching time was spent on activity not related to teaching. On the basis of this, changes were made — such as aligning central administrative staff with curriculum areas on each campus.

It’s not only FE colleges that are moving ahead with evidence. Stephanie Taylor’s initial research at HMP Dovegate, studying the role of the tutor in offender institutions, has given rise to a programme of small-scale action research projects amongst practitioners and a collaborative project on learning support assistants with Nottingham Trent University.

At Thurrock Adult Community College, Assistant Principal Nick Bailey is developing a professional development model that will supersede existing performance review, graded observation and CPD recording processes. It embeds the new standards for teaching and training from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). With the help of an ETF Research Fellowship, he is testing and refining the model.

The sheer variety of evidence-based initiatives is impressive — developing augmented reality for bricklaying, supported enquiry for youth workers tackling gangs, ‘clinically interviewing’ learners as they work through numeracy problems. This very diversity produced the key message from the LSRN workshop: don’t look for one standard approach to evidence-use. “Silver pellets rather than bullets,” as one participant put it.

From the many examples of the use of evidence highlighted at the workshop, some idea of the practicalities began to emerge. “Stop waiting for government initiatives” was one piece of sound advice. “Stop counting beans” was another, equally pithy. The key message, repeated in case after case, was to start by identifying a key problem that seriously affects student learning and then arm yourself with knowledge and evidence. To do this requires space and time for reflection and experimentation.

Finding these scarce resources was a recurring theme. The solution demonstrated through many successful initiatives is to make use of existing structures, such as professional development days and focusing on problems that will help the organisation move forward. No doubt the new grants announced at the workshop from the Further Education Trust for Leadership will help, providing financial and professional support for a number of new practice-based studies.

Encouragement from a leadership team proves an essential ingredient in the view of most project leaders. But for budget-holders, it’s not easy to decide where to invest. Research does not generally provide simple answers guaranteed to improve outcomes; by definition, it addresses unknowns. Innovation requires a degree of risk-taking and leaders have to weigh this up in allocating budgets.

So what can project leaders do to persuade a reluctant leadership team? “Be pragmatic” seemed to be the advice from participants: if the leadership team is accountancy-minded, base your research on the data they collect. If a research investment carries a big risk, look for previous studies first, and then pilot it on a small scale.

For the FE sector at large, what can be said at system level — beyond just that there is a multitude of examples of research-in-use? If using evidence is beneficial, what are the conditions under which it flourishes? Evidence from a recent study of evidence-use was cited by NFER’s Research Director Julie Nelson, to suggest that the “pull” of practitioners using research to solve actual problems is as important as the “push” of researchers disseminating their work. All players need to be involved in system-wide development of research-usage and the purpose behind any project should determine the approach taken. Small-scale action research is appropriate for professional learning, whereas a base of evidence synthesised from larger-scale studies is preferable for major investment decisions.

The overarching message from initiatives in different parts of the sector is that the use of evidence is not just an individual affair; it flourishes when a collaborative approach spreads across an organisation. Trust is the key – specifically, trusting relationships in which sound evidence and professional judgement justify the risk of investing in innovative approaches. In such an environment, an evidence-using culture can develop which, over time, offers the prospect of better outcomes for both learners and the bottom line.

An abridged version of this piece first appeared in ‘FE Week’ on 24 November 2014.

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