Why we joined the Research College Group – and you should too

If we want to fully and finally get past the ‘invisibility’ of research in FE, we must join together to share in its value

If we want to fully and finally get past the ‘invisibility’ of research in FE, we must join together to share in its value

14 May 2024, 5:00

As far back as 1996, the question was being already asked: why is research invisible in further education? In his seminal article, Geoffrey Elliott identified specific barriers, including the absence of a research tradition, undervaluing the links between research and practice, an unsupportive climate, and the absence of a model for research in our varied sector.

As Catherine Gray explained in these pages two weeks ago, many further education organisations do now value the links between research and practice in FE, rejecting more school-focused research in favour of practitioner-inquiry which is better suited to the breadth and complexity of FE.

And as Andrew Morris pointed out last week, the existing climate is largely now much more supportive. The LSRN is proving to be more and more popular. Practitioner research is supported by the ETF and AoC through various initiatives. And we now have a Research College Group (RCG) too.

Both articles have helped me reflect on our own journey at Solihull College & University Centre. In particular, joining the RCG (a collective of further education providers with a broad commitment to research in FE and the development of a strong model to assure its quality) has been instrumental.

Historically, there has always been a rich history of research at Solihull. Some of that has been practitioner inquiry (often towards professional qualifications, including initial teacher education). However, it also includes joint practice projects with higher education colleagues, and participating in research projects which explore FE practice.

With the founding of our university centre in 2015, research became more visible with the launch of our HE journal and annual conference. This began the process of making research more visible as colleagues were encouraged to share with others.

At that time, there was still a disconnect; Many of our staff working in the college would not necessarily have access to either the conference or the journal, even if they were researching themselves.

It’s a perfect example of the sector meeting its own needs

That’s when I began to realise that part of the problem was the lack of visibility (in that research wasn’t being shared) rather than a lack of research itself. For example, my first practitioner-inquiry in 2006 was part of an undergraduate qualification which had been funded by the college, and yet I hadn’t shared what I’d learned – even within my own team.

To bridge that disconnect and enable research to be recognised and shared across the whole college, we ran our first #FEResearchmeet in 2019, to share the good practice which already existed, but also to start creating a culture of celebration of research across the college. 

The following year brought Covid lockdowns and, unable to meet in person for our second #FEResearchmeet, we went online and ran it virtually. This led us to working with more practitioners across the sector and, in 2020, Solihull College & University Centre joined forces with other further education organisations to found the Research College Group, led by Sam Jones (the founder of FEResearchmeet).

This has been a key decision in our journey to recognising the importance of research in our sector, and especially towards providing a model for how to do, share and implement it in ways that suit our subjects, settings and contexts.

The RCG seeks to break down barriers, with the explicit purpose of developing the expertise, capacity, quality and publication of research from within further education. This puts us in a unique position to work outside the boundaries of our own organisations by working together across projects.

We will shortly be publishing two such projects: one is small-scale and practice-focused to look at how an idea which sprang up in one college could be tested in another; the other is a project across all the member colleges collecting data around the digital pedagogies adopted in response to the Covid lockdowns.

Andrew Morris is right: FE research cannot be sustained on practitioner commitment alone. But nor can it become systematic if colleges are working alone. We need a wider culture of research in every college, and for that we must work together.

The Research College Group is a perfect example of the sector creating its own infrastructure to meet its needs and the needs of its staff and learners. Come and join us!

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One comment

  1. Catherine Gray

    Inspired by these words and meeting Kerry today. There is excellent practice happening in FE but we’re not great yet at shouting about it! ‘A process of investigation leading to new insight effectively shared’ (Hefce, 2009)