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Researchers in pursuit of evidence

A sector with new parameters demands new methodologies and tasks, says Chris Hughes.

Scientific research has revealed that cats carry a parasite that transfers to rats and then lodges in the rodents' brains. The parasite has such a compulsion to return to a cat that it affects the rat's behaviour and causes it to become careless in front of felines. This makes it easier for a cat to catch, kill and eat the rat and for the parasite to return to its natural home. It is a powerful image and one that might have implications for the Learning and Skills Council.

When people think of research, investigations of seemingly random phenomena spring to mind. But research in post-16 education and training is different. It can help us look at how we do things and so improve the service we offer. It can be used to support policy development and implementation - linking research evidence to policy-making. And it can prevent policy from being created in isolation by ensuring it is rooted in the reality of daily practice. The Government has asked my organisation, the Further Education Development Agency, to become the national independent resource for research in post-16 education and training: linking policy to research will be central to our mission.

The timing couldn't be better. With the Learning and Skills Bill receiving Royal Assent, we are rapidly moving towards a new system for funding and standards, which presents a unique opportunity in research terms.

From day one, tracking the transition from the old system to the new will be vital. Researchers will have the opportunity to examine the impact the changeoer has on providers, teachers and customers. They will need to look at the things that have worked and not worked and examine patterns of provision and how they have changed as a result of the new system.

Among the range of customers served by the new learning and skills sector, one of the most important is the employers, so researchers must ensure that they are considered. Work-based training is seriously under-researched: we don't even know what other people know about this area or who knows it. We could benefit from international comparative studies, as we could in so many other areas.

The application of information and learning technology will be an important area for investigation. Those who teach or train still have little evidence showing what really works when it comes to using technology. What are the critical-success factors for screen-based pedagogy? What is high-quality online learning? How do people really want to use it? Research must provide answers to help us move beyond hype to a real understanding of how to apply technology to motivate and engage people.

Developing innovative methods is crucial. Providers will need support to help them carry out their own research - particularly action research and data analysis. In addition, we need to understand what makes for good teaching and successful learning.

This is a massive agenda. To meet it, we need a centre dedicated to rigorous and credible research. Only then will we have the capacity to link evidence-based research and policy successfully.

Chris Hughes is chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency

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