Goodwill and ideas bode well for post-16
The policy is to put teaching and learning at the heart of government, inspection and everyday best practice. All the old practices associated with cynical compliance with targets must be consigned to the dustbin of post-16 history. Instead, praise and money are being showered on colleges.
Encouragement to rise to tough challenges is the new message coming out of the DfES as part of another New Labour goal, namely modern public services that respond to reform in the right way. According to ministers, targets must create, not stifle, good practice but they must also maintain accountability. In this climate, the new post-16 unit has a lot to live up to. It is consulting in a genuine way on how to improve and disseminate best practice and to raise standards in FE and work-based training. The director general of Lifelong Learning, Janice Shiner, and the head of the new unit, Jane Williams, are enthusiastic and optimistic about shifting the culture back to learning.
For the first time it seems that the DfES has people leading policy who really care about post-16 education and training, and understand the pressures such a complex sector faces.
But there are also tensions in the enterprise. Although civil servants prefer policy headlines to describe phrases like "putting learning at the heart of what we do", there is a danger that ideas about best practice could end up merely as mantras. It is not clear, for example, what best practice really is, let alone what "bottling best practice" might mean.
A principal of a large college told me recently that it does not matter what she and her staff think best practice is - it is what inspection grades tell them it is. And it does seem that the new unit's focus is on raising inspection grades.
In a target-driven culture, this might just end up producing a standardised, compliant version of activities that get good grades. This does not sit well with creative and esoteric ideas about best practice, where teachers talk about things like passion, love of learning, commitment and zappy teaching.
And is best practice something that transfers easily from course to course and between institutions in tool kits, road shows and guidance packages? Here research can point to other factors that the new unit should take into account.
A project in the pound;27 million teaching and learning research programme, funded through the Economic and Social Science Research Council, shows that changing cultures in colleges is possible but complicated. The project is exploring the ways in which the local day-to-day cultures of FE colleges influence ideas and practices in teaching and learning.
These are affected in subtle ways according to subject traditions, the nature of the course, the relationships and expectations of the groups, and the learning identities and histories of the teachers and students.
Other ESRC research projects analyse what makes work-based learning effective. Such projects show that best practice takes time to define and has to be shared in precise, local and organic ways in a climate of constructive criticism. This may not fit too well with national targets and common inspection frameworks.
Despite these difficulties, there are good signs that the new DfES unit is open to new ideas and to clarifying how it might work with the agencies that already help organisations and practitioners to develop best practice.
Otherwise, there is a danger of duplicating effort and overlooking evidence that is already available.
Research has a crucial role to play in helping the unit to work effectively. Phase 3 of the teaching and learning research starts next year and will have about 12 funded projects covering teaching and learning across different parts of the post-16 sector. The Learning and Skills Research Centre has also commissioned projects that are already raising important questions about areas such as learning styles, informal learning and thinking skills. The outcomes of this work are also a basis for looking at good practice.
So there is already a wealth of evidence and good ideas in the system.
Staff taking up their posts in the new unit can build on these. There is a great deal of goodwill among researchers and practitioners to tap into. At the launch of the unit last year, the minister for adult skills, Ivan Lewis, told us that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the post-16 sector.
There have been repeated upheavals in the sector and many "new opportunities" over the past 20 years. But the chance to decide what counts as best practice and to transform a neglected sector is too good to miss.
It is also a good policy headline.
Kathryn Ecclestone is a senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle and associate director for the ESRC's Teaching and Learning Research Programme. For details of the TLRP, visit the TLRP's website at www.tlrp.org