Linking development and research: an opportunity for the new vocational Centre

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Andrew Morris explores the potential for a radically new approach to building a research culture in further education.

Further education (FE) colleges and other providers are better placed than ever to create a new kind of vocational education and training centre that is driven by hard evidence of what works and develops a genuine ‘research-minded culture’.

Failure to capitalise sufficiently on the evidence of our own strengths has too often left the FE sector vulnerable to changes devised by others, whether in government, academia or elsewhere. By adopting a fresh approach to the use of evidence we can break the cycle of short-lived initiatives that have beset the sector for decades and pave the way to sustained improvement and a rising profile for this crucial aspect of our economic and social wellbeing.

Such possibilities were brought sharply into focus in the report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning in the spring of 2013. It revealed the extent to which research as a tool for sound education policy is already developing in colleges across the UK. But I argue here that we can go a significant step further, taking the lead from the Commission’s inspiring report.
Filled with good ideas and practical proposals, the report pointed to an exciting opportunity that should not be missed: to ‘establish a National VET (vocational education and training) Centre that includes a new research and development capacity focused on vocational pedagogy and the development of VET more widely’.

The most obvious opportunity is, of course, to bring together the many parties to the VET system to focus jointly on pedagogy and development. But there is a further opportunity, of equal importance, implicit in the phrase ‘a new research and development capacity’. We should create not just a new Centre but a new kind of organisation, one that develops a ‘research-minded culture’. It would be designed as a knowledge-based Centre for a knowledge-based service, rather than as an exchange for unvalidated claims about good practice.

At the moment the VET Centre remains a very open concept and there will, no doubt, be many ideas about its fundamental purpose. But one special merit stands above all these because of the special, hybrid nature of VET itself, linking the public education service with the world of industry: VET engages places of work directly with places of learning. Research and development (as an integrated activity) is fundamental to the success of many industries, whereas it could be argued that ‘research and dissemination’ have until recently been the default model for academic research. The noted FE commentator Geoff Stanton in recent discussions suggested a VET Centre could provide a unique opportunity to blend the industrial R&D tradition with the social science approach of education research.

Examples of hybrid organisations that link basic research, evidence-based development and practical application exist in many fields. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield, for example, brings together Rolls Royce’s network of industry research centres with university research partners and its purpose-built Knowledge Transfer Centre links all this with practice. The National Institute of Health Research amalgamates all the knowledge processes from basic scientific research to guidance on patient care in a single, integrated ‘bench to bedside’ strategy. A knowledge-based VET Centre could similarly invest not only in ‘research capacity’ but also in the application of research evidence to professional practice and institutional development. It could also act as a conduit through which VET practitioners could indicate where research is required.

As the book Using Evidence by Sandra Nutley and colleagues (see box below) shows, for sustainable, evidence-informed improvement, evidence needs to be produced in collaboration with its ultimate users and put to use through interactive processes in social settings. In practice, however, these ideals are not as easy to implement as they are to state. Changing the habits of a lifetime in the light of research evidence is always a challenge: using seat belts, giving up smoking, wearing cycle helmets, all take some getting used to.

So, how might a new VET Centre build on what is currently known about the use of evidence in practice?

First, the use of research evidence needs to become a principle that runs through an organisation, rather than an activity within a single department; research in a silo fails to influence practice. In the case of VET research, a particular limitation is the patchiness of the evidence base, which won’t be able to provide all the answers wished for.

A second implication therefore is that the knowledge that does exist needs to be ‘mobilised’ for practical use – brought together, assessed for validity and reliability and used as basis for materials and tools to develop practice. Examples of how this can be done are emerging in several countries (see for example Washington State Institute for Public Policy Research and the New Zealand Best Evidence Synthesis programme , and in the UK through the work of the Education Endowment Foundation with its Toolkit of evidence-based practices (EEF Toolkit. Education Endowment Foundation, (2013) London.

Third, to reduce the patchiness itself, collaboration is needed to shape the ‘knowledge agenda’: to agree on, prioritise and frame the research questions and R&D objectives. Again the VET Centre could provide the opportunity for teachers, trainers, workplace supervisors, recruiters, assessors and others to work together to create an agenda for useful knowledge creation. Development and research packages might then be designed as a whole involving the expertise of all the partners VET brings to the table. This approach also offers the potential to attract greater inward investment by offering funders the opportunity to back the kind of research people demonstrably want.

Perhaps the toughest issue of all is also the most critical for effective improvement: how could a VET Centre help practitioners and leaders make use of sound knowledge to develop their practice? The true difficulties of doing this are known to us all as human beings, whether we overeat, forget the seatbelt or smoke a guilty cigarette. However this has become a hot topic recently and a number of new initiatives are developing as I write. ‘What Works Centres’ are currently being set up, stimulated by the Cabinet Office and Treasury; current themes include early years, schooling and employment. At the same time a new College of Teaching is being proposed by the Princes Teaching Institute with the intention of developing the profession through the use of evidence and providing recognition for this, but so far restricted to early years settings, schools and sixth form colleges. A key imperative for the new VET Centre will be to establish the presence of vocational education in or alongside these major new public institutions, to ensure that vocational aspects are not airbrushed out of the public perception of education.

The opportunity of the VET Centre could hardly be more timely. It offers the chance to create a powerful new organisation based on knowledge rather than opinion, interest or fad – as befits a sector dealing in knowledge. A fresh approach to creating and using knowledge is made possible by the very special quality of VET– the partnership of industry and education; practical development and scholarly research working together in the interests of better learning.

Knowledge that leads to improvement

The process of using knowledge to improve the public services has been studied in many contexts – health, social, criminal justice and technology, for example – as well as in education.
Studies of the diffusion of innovation by Everett Rogers in a now classic work show the way new ideas spread from initial research in a non-linear way (Rogers, E. Diffusion of Innovations (1995). Simon and Schuster).
Studies of research impact, notably for the Learning and Skills Research Centre, showed that engaging research users with the producers can enhance impact (Nutley S., Percy-Smith J and Solesbury W (2002). Models of research impact: a cross-sector review of literature and practice. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre);
Studies of teacher responses to evidence reinforce this (Morris A., Rickinson M. and Percy-Smith J. (2007) Practitioners and Evidence. CfBT Evidence for Education programme Working Paper.
Studies of the good practice transfer in education by Michael Fielding suggest that peer collaboration can be more effective than ‘beacons’ in securing evidence-based improvement (Fielding M (2005) Factors influencing the transfer of good practice. London: Department for Education and Science. Research Report 615).
Perhaps the most relevant study – a major review of research on the use of evidence across the health, social care, education and criminal justice systems – shows that using research is largely a social process in which people collaborate with one another: finding, absorbing, challenging and testing out evidence. As they decide whether and how they might alter their practice, they need to interact with the evidence and colleagues and perhaps its originator. (Nutley, S., Walter, I. and Davies, H.T.O. (2007) Using evidence: how research can inform the public services. (Policy Press, Bristol) p319)

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