Greening the desert of FE research is proving tricky

5th January 2018 at 00:00
Despite cash being offered to fertilise pilots and initiatives, uptake has been slow

While research plays an integral role in higher education, its status in FE is more difficult to define. Dedicated conferences in the sector have remained isolated events, and what limited research does take place is often on a small scale.

So when the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) announced in July 2016 that it was moving into post-16 education and making £5 million available for projects to boost the prospects of students without good GCSE passes in maths and English, the move was welcomed by the sector. But six months on, only four projects have attracted support from the EEF.

The most recent trial, led by The Manchester College, to find out whether short tests and handwritten exercises could help college students in their GCSE English resits, was announced last month.

The foundation tells Tes that, of the original £5 million pot, almost £3 million has yet to be allocated. This is down to a lack of awareness of research in the sector, says senior programme manager Eleanor Stringer: “Whenever we move into a new area, it takes a while to get going…We are new to the sector and it is very different [from schools].”

Smaller scale than schools

Approximately 70 submissions were made in response to the first call for applications from post-16 providers, she adds, but much of the existing research is smaller scale than in schools. “For a start, there are far fewer colleges,” says Stringer. “In schools, we have projects coming to us working with 30, 40 or 50 schools. You won’t get that in colleges.”

The EEF plans further work to raise awareness of the funding available.

The first three post-16 projects funded by the EEF were announced in March. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) received £700,000 to extend its work on embedding contextualisation in English and maths GCSE teaching to 1,500 learners across 100 settings.

The University of Nottingham’s Maths-for-Life project received £640,000 to expand its initiative to teach challenging maths concepts through student-centred classes focusing on problem-solving and discussion. Some 8,000 post-16 students from 100 settings will take part in the trial.

In addition, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – the “nudge unit” that was originally established within the Cabinet Office, but is now operating as a limited company – was awarded £240,000 to test whether the sending of encouraging text messages to students and those designated as “study supporters” (for example, a peer, parent or mentor) might improve attendance and attainment. More than 30 colleges are now taking part in the study.

Bibi Groot, BIT’s research adviser, says financial pressures on the sector mean staff often have “no time for things like research”.

“It takes a lot of time and there is so little funding,” she says. “They might be doing things in their own classroom, but it isn’t disseminated. The infrastructure [to do so] isn’t very good.”

Matt Alvarez, project manager at the AELP, believes the broadness and complexity of the FE sector partly explains the apparent lack of research activity.

“That, combined with the rapidly changing delivery models, makes it quite difficult to measure one thing against itself, year on year,” he says.


@JBelgutay

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