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Lecturers' findings cast doubt on sceptics

One of the perks of education is that you can learn fascinating things from students' research projects. Last year I learned, for example, that if Mozart had taken an advanced GNVQ in art and design, his approach to being "creative" would have led to a fail, according to the grading criteria. Beethoven, on the other hand, would have got a distinction.

Another project looked at barriers to adult learning caused by assessment language and found that when you put NVQ performance criteria through five different "fog check" packages, the computer assesses them as more difficult to understand than Wittgenstein's dense philosophical work, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Amusing food for thought for the designers of the vocational curriculum.

Other research is less amenable to journalistic sound bites but is nevertheless important and useful. Each year, hundreds of further and adult education lecturers on certificate and degree courses around the country produce research findings which improve curriculum development, or provide answers to problems such as high drop-out rates on particular courses. Some of the findings fly in the face of current policy initiatives, others confirm them. But all of them are a collective one in the eye for those who criticise "academic" professional learning for being irrelevant, esoteric or "theoretical". And all could contribute to organisational strategies for curriculum development - if only they were more widely used.

Some of the projects I assessed each year had the supportive backing and interest of senior managers in the organisation, with a commitment to help disseminate the findings. Too many students, though, were undertaking research without this interest and support.

What is particularly striking every year is the depth of commitment to reflection, reading and analysing educational issues, and this in perhaps the most demoralised period the sector has known.

It isn't just that professional development of this sort is potentially useful to the post-16 sector, especially to individual colleges and training organisations. For the individuals who do it, new knowledge, new critical insights, professional confidence and renewed enthusiasm are just some of the unintended outcomes.

A trainer at British Aerospace, "set in his ways" (his words, not mine) found that research into the application of some of Carl Roger's humanist principles of learning has irrevocably changed his approach. And to life, it seemed from his unstoppable enthusiasm. On a less romantic note, the outcome of a college lecturer's research in health informatics (I learned a lot about information technology from this one) was a regional partnership to offer a carefully piloted and evaluated curriculum with hospitals and the university. Another will work with colleagues and managers to improve retention on engineering courses, and another to improve the transition for adults from outreach community-based provision to mainstream college programmes. It is easy to wax lyrical about the transforming effects of education, especially the liberal variety where students follow their own interests and gain new insights and skills.

Of course, academic study of this sort is only one - usually a one-off - answer for a few staff. But for every adult learner who reminds us how energising and empowering learning can be, it is salutory to think of colleagues leaving the profession burnt out and demoralised or just summarily dismissed. This year, the contrast was all the more noticeable. This climate makes the need to rethink our whole approach to professional development and renewal all the more urgent.

This is no easy task when the majority of college staff development budgets are still being spent on the NVQ assessor awards, and where we still have no recognised framework for career progression and development in FE.

In the face of these pressures, there are appeals to reduce the academic workload of professional development and to make it more work-based. This seems a logical response, but the experience of using NVQs for initial teacher training does not offer unalloyed optimism that this particular form of work-based training can inspire and enthuse.

Nor can it give staff the chance to question, and to stand back from the stress of everyday pressures.

More imagination is needed. There are innovative college-based projects for staff development and examples where colleges and universities work together. There is also growing interest from the Further Education Development Agency in partnerships and a credit framework for professional development.

These initiatives could provide part of the answer about how to provide a coherent route from initial teacher training to teaching expertise, management and curriculum leadership.

Is it possible to do this and still provide spaces for professional learning which motivates as well as develops? This sounds like a good focus for a rather large action research project. Perhaps we could also offer accreditation for the findings.

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Sunderland

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