Cambridge Regional College created a research culture by encouraging its teaching staff to think about research and development in the broadest sense. Ann Limb, the principal, says: "We made an explicit policy statement with a commitment to developing research in FE, led by me." Remarkable progress has been made in just 18 months.
A seminar on research in post-16 education revealed that colleges needed a different kind of approach from higher education, with a very different concept and methodology.
"For instance, in FE you can't have pretensions to becoming a research establishment," says Ms Limb. The college staff also realised that it had to be aimed at improving teaching and learning. "University research into FE is useful, but we needed to develop something by FE practitioners."
A research steering group was created to shape a strategy that would implement and support projects across the college. Staff interested in research were were invited to join a peer support group. This was christened a "research cadre". Tim Smithson, a college manager who had done doctoral research, was appointed head of research.
"Immediately, an amazing amount of individual staff undertook a whole range of research projects, from completing their PhDs to undertakingtheir own investigations for the fun of it," says Ann Limb.
The cadre then devised a framework of research styles: strategic (commissioned by senior management), college-based (commissioned by departments) and personal (undertaken by individuals).
A research week and lunchtime seminars were organised to discuss investigations into topics such as bullying in primary schools.
Tim Smithson says that establishing a democratic culture of research can "engender a community of peers that transcends the traditional line-management structure". It can improve college decision-taking. Bids for government "partnership" cash have also been more successful, including a bid to the Department for Education and Employment for a major project on key skills.
"This is a very good example of FE research and partnership," says Ann Limb. "In FE, we have the practical knowledge of key skills, but not the time to do research, while the university has the time but not the practical knowledge."
She has persuaded two Cambridge colleges to give fellowships: a term's paid sabbatical, to FE researchers. This is part of a strategic policy to break down barriers between the sectors. "What we've done, other colleges could do with their local university," she says.