College staff need the skills to spread good ideas. Martin Whittaker reports
Many good ideas within colleges are untapped because best practice is going unrecognised, according to new research.
While the Government encourages the sharing of good practice externally across the post-16 sector, further education colleges lack strategies for sharing what staff do well internally.
The findings have implications for the further development of centres of vocational excellence, says the study. While some CoVEs have imaginative approaches to sharing good practice with other providers, few share it within their own organisations.
"Sharing good practice" has become the new buzz phrase in post-16 education and training and is a key part of the Success For All strategy to reform the sector.
The Learning and Skills Beacon award initiative funds high-performing colleges and work-based learning providers to help weaker ones by disseminating their good practice. The CoVE initiative also requires colleges to share good practice across vocational areas. And the standards unit was set up last March to identify and spread good practice in FE teaching and learning.
Local LSCs also offer help to foster good practice, offering publications, resource guides, open days, conferences and financial support. Less attention has been given to sharing good practice within colleges, says the new study, but this is starting to change.
"Why is it that colleges have differential performance across areas of learning?" asks the report. "Why cannot the weakest departments within a college learn from the best?"
Untapped knowledge and skills exist in all colleges but much more needs to be done to capture and use it, it says. Good ideas often go unexploited because staff do not recognise their own good practice.
And while colleges have developed ways of identifying and sharing good practice internally, many are developed without any strategy or plan. And colleges offer staff few incentives, other than time release. Evidence from the CoVE programme suggests that many colleges find it difficult to transfer practice across curriculum areas.
Colleges cited attitudes of staff as a barrier with an inclination to regard their practice as "my class, my course". "Departmental 'fiefdoms' in particular are a recognised feature of many colleges and present a major challenge to any strategy for the sharing of good internal practice," says the study.
Rosemary Clark, quality manager for the Association of Colleges, said: "I think there are always sensitivities within your own institution about one group of people putting themselves up as having good practice.
"It's not as easy sometimes as going out and looking at another college.
But if you have really good areas of work sitting alongside areas that are weaker, then there are obviously some lessons that can be learned."
Is the policy of sharing good practice between colleges working? A study published by the Learning and Skills Council last September, says there is so far little measurable evidence to show the effect on the college seeking best practice.
Reasons given include disseminating colleges not being in a position to collect evidence, and the difficulty in isolating the potential benefits from other factors.
But weaker colleges do cite changes in practice resulting from their involvement with others. It boosts the profile of the college and gives staff the chance to work beyond the confines of their own organisation and improve links with colleagues in other colleges.
The downside is the workload. "Keeping dissemination activities to a manageable level is a particular issue for those using consultancy-based approaches," says the LSC's study.
It also raises the issue of whether staff have good sharing skills. "Being good at an activity does not necessarily mean that you will be good at sharing that activity with others," it says.
Separate research also found that some staff worried that the time spent on sharing good practice could be to the detriment of developing their CoVE for the future.
The LSC is currently helping to investigate the skills college staff need to share good practice. "We are also working closely with the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Department for Education and Skills, the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), and Connexions on a number of initiatives," said an LSC spokeswoman.
From Small Acorns: Towards a strategy for spreading good practice within colleges, by Phil Cox and Vikki Smith, is due to be published by the LSDA this month