As Joel Petrie wrote for Tes last week, the recent attempt by Ofsted to learn about FE research by appointing a panel of HE-based advisers has galvanised an unprecedented, self-organised response.
Despite expansive mission statements, FE is as parcelled up as any medieval enclosure system, blocked into ever-increasing silos. Working in an environment where "outstanding" is the expected norm and there are never enough resources means that many FE practitioners operate on the edge of panic for much of the year. In those conditions, it’s very difficult to value anything other than the most urgent work – which, in FE, is more likely to be a synonym for data than for creative areas like research.
Background: It's time to share pioneering pedagogy
Yet for several years now, something new has been happening. Under the canopy of FE’s tall trees – the pressured hierarchies of FE institutions – individual educators have been discovering the joy of connecting up outside of their workplaces under various umbrellas on social media. This is the rhizome, a botanical metaphor which challenges the dominance of the hierarchical tree. Think native bluebells on the forest floor, lily of the valley, even couch grass. They appear from nowhere and if you dig them up they are likely to make an unexpected reappearance, popping up over the road or in the neighbour’s garden.
Educators are organising themselves via hashtags. They are gathering themselves into areas of interest where they can share energy and drive. These different constellations, whether interest-based like #FEResearch, project-based like #APConnect (for advanced practitioners) or intentionally community-building like #UKFEchat (a regular Twitterchat, Thursdays at 9pm), enable busy practitioners to step outside the day job and do creative stuff. In tough times, many of us draw strength from the fellow travellers we’ve met online, where no one cares if you work in a college or prison, if you’re a manager or learning support worker – or, for that matter, an HE-based researcher who still cares about FE.
The FE research map
A rhizome creeps along underground, occasionally flourishing in discussions and ideas. Then, when the time is right, it suddenly grows like Japanese knotweed and it’s everywhere. Shortly after Ofsted announced the composition of its FE research reference group, Craig Tucker, a staff development director at a college in the West Midlands, spotted a suggestion on Twitter about a map of FE researchers. Within moments, he’d made one:
“I was able to try, and fail the first time, and try again and succeed, all with the support of people on Twitter. Within 24 hours, there were nearly 100 pins on the map!”
At the time of writing, the pins had at least doubled. Do you still think there’s no research in and on FE? Rhizomatic networking attracts the can-do people, fresh thinkers like Tucker who aren’t afraid of critiquing the sector they love, but at the same time are not cynical about it. But like any living thing, someone has to plant and nurture it. He spotted the opportunity because he had a purpose for hanging out on Twitter on a Sunday morning: he enjoyed being around other educators when not juggling the day job. Years of patient relationship-building ensured that, when the moment came for FE research, the rhizome was ready to act.
The #FEResearchMap has no owner – it is crowdsourced via a simple online form and updates automatically every 24 hours. It’s populated with self-identified researchers from FE and HE. The ever-present danger of re-compartmentalising into work contexts, job roles and other comfort zones, is challenged by community-minded bystanders who respectfully make the point that we might not all be the same but we are all in it together.
Winning the notice of Ofsted is not the same as winning the battle for FE to do research on its own terms. We still face challenges around where FE research is stored so that it’s accessible for anyone who wants to use it. And while there are some great pathways now for apprentice researchers, much more needs to be done. But what matters is this: we finally have a public discourse, and the solutions suggested come from within, not outside of FE – which means they’re actually right for the sector.
Personally, I got involved in the seedling rhizome several years ago as a contributor to the book Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And I’m forced to accept that the Cinderella metaphor is still haunting us. But I’ve got a sense that, this time, FE research might get to go to the ball.
Lou Mycroft is a facilitator, writer and public speaker