The FE sector’s record on research isn’t great and, as such, it could be missing out on many benefits, says Emma Procter-Legg
Since becoming involved in the Jisc (formerly Joint Information Systems Committee) Advance-funded research project Students4webES (Students for Webinar Employability Skills), I have learned that participation in formal research is not very common within the FE and skills sector.
There are many reasons for the lack of research within FE — an absence of dedicated research time and funding being two of the more obvious ones.
Access to project funding for FE colleges is limited. The Learning and Skills Improvement Service, now gone, had small amounts of funding to support small projects and individual practitioner action research.
Until 2012, Jisc accepted bids for project funding from FE institutions with more than 400 full-time equivalent HE students.
In 2012 Jisc introduced the Jisc Advance funding programme, without the FTE higher education requirement, to enhance learning and teaching across the FE and skills sector.
The Students4webES project was one of the 33 accepted bids from this programme.
Few, if any, FE colleges have a research department.
Historically much of the research that has been conducted within the sector is carried out by higher education institutions or research organisations looking at FE from the outside.
I feel this approach lacks the insider knowledge, the implicit knowledge that those working in FE can bring to research.
Research in FE requires a different approach — the sector has different needs and areas that need to be understood and supported.
I was lucky to be approached to be the project manager of the Students4webES project run at Abingdon and Witney College.
I had previously worked at the college as a lecturer so found it relatively straightforward to understand the project and the nature of the issues that we might face running a project.
I brought with me some research experience having just finished working on an EU-funded project at the time I took on this role.
Understanding the requirements of a research project meant I could bring a great deal of enthusiasm and not be overwhelmed by the paperwork.
Indeed, without the dedicated time and funding and the invaluable support and training offered by Jisc it would not have been possible to run the project.
Not all research can be run as action research— as part of a lecturer’s continuing professional development, a teacher training qualification (be that DTTLS, a PGCE or other) or masters programme.
The funding allowed us to dedicate the necessary time to make the project work, to overcome the various barriers that occurred and to share our findings with others within the sector and beyond.
FE is a complex and multi-level sector, but it is also interesting and under-researched by those who know it best.
Action research or case studies are the normal contribution by FE practitioners to understanding their own sector.
These are useful and often shared, but properly run research adds value to a wider audience and may help the FE and skills sector, and the wider educational community, gain a more holistic understanding of education, teaching, learning and vocational skills that affects a large number of young people and adults in the UK.