How we’re putting research at the heart of staff training and development

Our approach is not only improving teachers’ professional curiosity but growing the evidence base for what works in our sector

Our approach is not only improving teachers’ professional curiosity but growing the evidence base for what works in our sector

29 Apr 2024, 5:00

The issue of a poor research base in further education is one FE Week has returned to many times since Nigel Ecclesfield wrote about it in 2013. At East Coast College, we have taken that issue to heart.

It started with change. Change of qualification. Change of staff. Change of approach.

Three years ago, the Initial Teacher Education programme at East Coast College was rebuilt. We formed a partnership with Suffolk New College and now deliver our teaching qualifications through the University of Suffolk.

At a similar time, we transformed our approach to quality assurance. From management observation of teachers, we moved towards experimenting with delivery and resources in teams of three or four colleagues.

We are now working in an exciting educational environment in which teachers collaborate and celebrate their successes and discoveries. There is a fever about practitioner research that is gaining momentum and, with three years behind us, we have the opportunity to reflect and consider how this phenomenon has grown.

The first key factor was the removal of performance management from lesson observations. Teachers were bound by fear of failure, being reduced to a number or grade that carried a potential threat to their employment. These were the wrong conditions for creativity and innovation.

So we adopted the RED system designed by Tony Davis of CCQI which liberated teachers to work together, empowered them to identify a problem relevant to their contexts, and gave them the opportunity to research and plan before inviting their colleagues to visit.

No managers are involved in this process; it’s a safe place to experiment and fail. The consequence is that teachers have grown in confidence, feeling valued and respected. At the end of each year, we hold a conference in which the teams share their experiences. This has created an interest in research, led to bonds forming among colleagues, fostered pride in our achievements and in turn led to a natural engagement in professional discussion.

No managers are involved; it’s a safe place to experiment and fail

Combining our approach to research and reflective practice with our initiative to re-invent teacher education, we have created the perfect conditions for teacher growth. We offer a level 5 certificate in education alongside a level 6 professional graduate qualification. All new East Coast College teachers are required to undertake this two-year programme.

And beyond serving our teachers (and learners) this model is feeding back into the research itself. The second year of the programme is predominantly focused on practitioner research, and what has become increasingly clear to us is that the canon of learning theories is often directed at primary and secondary education and written by educational psychologists working in universities.

Our ever-increasing band of researchers have become more aware of how barren the landscape is for FE practitioner researchers.  We don’t see enough research into FE practice done by FE practitioners.  Nor do we think that theorists really understand our context on the east coast of England. 

Our sector is unique and our practitioner research should reflect this. At East Coast College, our home-grown practitioners become the experts because of their insight and their dual professionalism. 

But it is crucial to ask why research is still so invisible in further education. Surely we aren’t the only college connecting teacher development and research development.

If your college isn’t, then we can highly recommend our two-pronged approach: the RED quality process for all teaching staff, and teacher training qualifications that nurture new members of staff in the habit of evidence-based research and collaboration.

Last July, we held a conference about research in local colleges titled ‘Voices from the East’, where we shared all the papers our staff had produced. We’re planning to build on its success by holding a second event later this year, so if you’re curious about the impact of our approach, you can come and see for yourself the enthusiasm and impact of our researcher practitioners.

If we can spread this fever, we know there’s a platform in FE Week to share the results so that, in another ten years, we won’t still be revisiting this issue.

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  1. Jo Fletcher-Saxon

    Great article, Catherine. Lots of FE research activity across colleges but not necessarily as readily visible as the outputs of university researchers. Love reading about colleges embracing research as part of their professional development offer (it’s my PhD focus). At LSRN (Learning and Skills Research Network), we have launched this today – with the support of the AoC – which you might enjoy:

  2. I am on the Teacher program at East Coast college – 1st year, it has been incredibly helpful and supportive sometimes in demanding environments. The comradeship and team mindset has made the sessions feel safe and allowed for open honest debates, enriching my own practice and helping others within the group deal with sometimes difficult FE conditions. I agree more adult targeted research is essential for positive development of the industrial and would bring great benefit to both students and staff, this is something East Coast are championing, and I look forward to seeing the results.