I am a big advocate of research within the FE sector. I have written about it, given keynotes about it, blogged about it and had endless conversations about it. I really value the different perspective that researching your practice and opening up critical conversations can give both individuals and organisations.
I firmly believe this type of activity helps to build practitioners’ guiding principles on how to act and how to teach, moving them towards ideas of thoughtful "expert" practice, rather than instrumental rule-following. For organisations, this work can give context to potential decision making that would otherwise be missing, and allow those organisations within FE to challenge conceptions and practice.
However, research in FE is still a new phenomenon in its present iteration and not without its potential pitfalls.
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Quality research in FE
I have spent a lot of time in the last year or so considering – both alone and in collaboration with others from the further and higher education sectors – what "quality" research might look like in an FE context.
It’s an important consideration, and we need to do all we can to ensure that they are good, robust claims that can and should stand up to scrutiny.
Otherwise, we will always run the risk of looking like the poor relation, or building on castles of air. Sharing and building better practices and better futures for our students is the purpose of knowledge construction, but to do this, we need to do everything I described at the start of this article. We need to talk, give keynotes and write, and that is part of "quality" research – but I would suggest that we need to develop new behaviours to facilitate this.
We can only share knowledge and build on each other’s ideas if we can be safe in the environments in which we share them. It is imperative to share our ideas, to move opinions and practice, but how do we ensure that these ideas remain "ours" and that we get the credit for them in the same way as they do in the higher education community where plagiarism is a cardinal sin?
Let’s be realistic about this, the FE researcher community is made up of people who undertake these activities for free, not usually as part of their jobs, and lots of activity can go unrecognised. If research is to be "quality", does it not also need an ethical dimension that recognises this work and attribute the ideas to the individual? Otherwise, you may end up with people beavering away to research or develop new ideas and practice, only for those ideas to then be taken up by larger organisations who benefit from their work without giving credit.
Their work, their time, their value will be taken without benefit, and how many times is a person willing to let that happen before they stop contributing? If the pool of knowledge becomes a vacuum that sucks away your ideas and your value, leaving you with nothing, it becomes an undesirable space to inhabit. And, ultimately, it will becomes a desert.
I don’t have the perfect answer to this problem. I’d suggest that written publication is important, albeit time-consuming. Peer-reviewed journals can take months and years to publish work, but they do offer longevity and recognition.
Publications like SET and Intuition require less time, have reach across the sector and include blogs like the Bedford College Group Research Network blog. All of this activity goes some way to recording and recognising individuals’ ideas and contributions. However, I am guessing there also need to be spaces within college and sector organisations for recognising the contributions made by those who either work within them or inform them. Could these take the form of small awards, research lead roles or maybe a name on a policy document or report? This article aims to be more of a vehicle for a question rather than a vehicle for an answer.
There is, I believe, a significant benefit to the sector from practitioners engaging in research and contributing to driving change in and around the sector. However, knowledge needs to be shared to develop, and this needs to be done ethically, otherwise we can never lay claim to any "quality" research within the sector.
Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE Teacher of the Year at the Tes FE Awards 2019