How will the new Research College Group work?

The new initiative will provide space to develop ideas, undertake research and share knowledge for use across the sector

Anne Haig-Smith

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The push for practitioner-led research in the further education sector is about to reach new heights. Ten sixth-form and further education colleges in England and Wales have come together to ensure a practitioner-based, inclusive approach to new research across the sector. 

The new Research College Group is complementary to current externally funded research activities, and is formed of organisations that are all currently active in research. It aspires to offer a structured space within which colleagues can develop ideas, undertake research and share knowledge for use across the sector.

Chaired by Sam Jones, from The Bedford College Group, since its initial meeting in September 2020, representatives from the 10 organisations have built a new network in a few short months.

The 10 founding organisations are:

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Keen to take a leading role in the thinking space around the appropriateness and nature of research within the sector, Sam and colleagues have developed an ethical framework, devised a marketing strategy and determined membership protocols. Embedding robust but inclusive research practices from the outset, the group will launch their own journal, welcoming contributions from across the sector and offering mentoring and support for practitioners who are taking their first steps in this direction. The first piece of collaborative research focuses on the changes to digital pedagogies throughout the past year.

The group are determined to embrace opportunities to conduct rigorous and relevant research and are enthusiastic to work alongside colleagues from universities, consultancies and government-funded organisations. The Research College Group wants to work on equal terms to others in the field, acknowledging the wealth of knowledge held by the highly qualified practitioners and leaders who are at the chalkface every day. Many have decades of experience, understanding the nuances of policy changes and government initiatives with a depth that is not possible for those not involved on a daily basis. 

Following the extraordinary past 12 months, the Research College Group is keen to listen to the profound questions staff are asking and offer the guidance, support and curated space within which their answers can be shared. The group is aiming to challenge preconceived notions of what research should look like in the sector, exploring and determining its own model of scholarship.

Making FE college research accessible 

One of the greatest criticisms of current educational research is that it is inaccessible to busy teachers. If it is tucked away in academic journals, most teachers, from both the school and post-16 sector, will have neither the time nor the inclination to delve into lengthy articles that may develop their practice. Some colleges publish their own in-house research, fuelled principally by enthusiastic trainee teachers. Elsewhere there is already a wealth of innovative and practical work being undertaken, including the Education and Training Foundation’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) projects, which the Research College Group will certainly draw on.

Moving forward, the Research College Group will open to organisational membership from September 2021 for those institutions that are able to demonstrate good current research practices and offer a commitment to the values of the new group. One deeply held value is that organisations wishing to join should commit to using and acknowledging practitioner research within their own planning and decision-making. As a voluntarily managed group, there will be no membership fees, underlining the aim to develop and keep knowledge of the sector within the sector and accessible to all.

The Research College Group intends to draw together a community of research practitioners from across the sector, sharing practice and supporting those who wish to explore further, thereby developing the capacity within the sector to answer its own research questions. Its intention is to work collaboratively on a small number of projects, publishing these and selected individual contributions on its new website. Alongside framing and responding to their own research questions, the group are keen to offer a facility for other institutions to commission sectoral research, by offering access to a broad range of colleges across England and Wales, ranging from sixth forms to college groups.

Anne Haig-Smith is the director, applied learning foundation at Activate Learning

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