Pioneers on higher ground

Barbara Miller reports on a further education college growing its own research team. Academic research has been the preserve of higher education for far too long, according to Frank Reeves, deputy principal at Bilston Community College in the West Midlands.

"Further education has suffered from the belief that higher education is where research ought to be," says Dr Reeves.

He and 16 members of staff from Bilston Community College are challenging this belief. Last month they went into eight FE colleges in England and Wales to carry out the second phase of a research project assessing basic skills support for both vocational and academic students.

The project, undertaken with the University of Central England and funded by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit, is a two-year study of the extra English and maths offered to students at the participating institutions. Anna Frankel, head of the quality and equality directorate at Bilston, believes the work will benefit both the college and its staff.

Two Bilston researchers visited each of the eight colleges for one week to interview staff and audit basic skills support. A UCE team interviewed managers and students at each site and were also involved in a literature search and statistical survey.

The Bilston researchers - basic grade subject lecturers and those teaching basic skills because, said Dr Frankel,"they have a feel for the area" - were trained in data collection, interviewing and auditing. The researchers were also involved in two dummy run projects at Bilston and another FE college in the West Midlands. They have had reduced class contact for the duration of the basic skills project.

"It is an investment from the college's point of view," says Dr Frankel. "The research work encourages staff to question their own practices and they gain in experience and knowledge." She stresses that the project is complex to manage and is not a cheap research option.

"It takes a great deal of resources and a lot of skills. In the long run, however, it is the best possible way to embed the work in the institution. "

Bilston has a well-established code of conduct to ensure that staff conform to accepted research ethics. "It is particularly important that other FE colleges are confident that the researchers' role will not be used as a cover for collecting information for our college's benefit," Dr Frankel points out.

Patrick Ainley, a writer and researcher in education and training, believes that involving staff in research helps their own practice. "It is very different from the academic method of doing research. It has a team approach and is integral to FE practice," he says. "FE staff are also the people on the ground. They know exactly what is going on."

The partnership with the university also works well, Dr Frankel adds. "The University of Central England has experience and a good track record in traditional academic research and we can offer the FE perspective."

Claire Nankivell, a research associate in UCE's centre for information, research and training, says that Bilston has brought different kinds of research skills to the project as well as the vital understanding of how FE works. "Both institutions realised we could offer more by working in partnership," she says. "It has proved to be a good way of working."

But Bilston also undertakes research single-handedly. Wolverhampton City Challenge has paid the college to assess the feasibility of "positive action" training courses for the local Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. Two staff are involved, but more will be co-opted to interview local employers and set up focus groups so that the local community groups can feed in their views.

The research department at Bilston was initially developed because the college wanted to publish some of its work. It has now been running for three years. The research skills acquired by the department are constantly fed back into the college to support students' learning. Bilston staff members who are studying for higher degrees also benefit from the department's work.

"We have tried to specialise in those areas where we believe the college has expertise - in quality, equal opportunities, adult basic education and community access," said Mr Reeves.

The department's aim is not, Dr Frankel pointed out, "to replicate, in a pathetic way, what is done in HE and established research institutions.

"We see research as, fundamentally, something that supports the strategic aims of the college."

Bilston's long-term objective is to establish a centre for research in FE, but Mr Reeves believes that without sufficient resources FE colleges will not fulfil their potential in the research arena.

"We cannot operate from the assumption that one third of our funds is for research, as can those in HE. Research activities (in FE) either have to be an integral part of teaching or must be funded from other sources. We have to make special bids for research money."

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