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Where two worlds meet

Kathryn Ecclestone recounts a seminar where researchers and policymakers actually talked

Many researchers and policy makers share the goal of improving the quality of teaching and learning. But all too often the worlds of policy and university-based research seem to talk past each other. Academic researchers say that policymakers don't take account of their findings and insights when they make decisions and set the latest targets. Sometimes they say that the policies themselves undermine good practice. And policy makers often think that academics are too remote from the realities of policy, take too long to produce evidence and couch their findings in language that no one can understand.

A recent seminar I attended addressed this problem head on. The two worlds of policy and research in attendance could not be more different. The Success for All Theme 2 for the Post-16 Standards Unit at the department for education and Skills works to a large budget, ambitious targets and an extremely short-time scale. And it is unique for a government department because it comprises staff seconded from colleges, workplaces and inspection bodies. These unusual policy makers aim to create a new approach to policy-led change in work-based learning and further education, using evidence from trying out subject-specific teaching materials and methods.

With a much smaller budget, the transforming learning cultures in FE project is a four-year, intensive study of teaching and learning in four FE colleges. It shows that the learning cultures of diverse sites and programmes are complex and idiosyncratic, affecting what counts as good teaching and learning in very subtle ways. Teaching materials and staff development have to work alongside strategies that help practitioners and managers understand and manage learning cultures that are local and changeable.

It would be easy for these different camps to end up in disagreement or retreat into formal presentations in reports and meetings. Instead, three hours of genuine talking focused on a clearly identified problem, with carefully structured questions and ground rules of confidentiality and openness.

A crucial starting point was the shared commitment among unit staff and researchers to the problem of how to improve practice. And we used differences of opinion about how to do this as a productive aspect of dialogue rather than something to avoid. This friendly, respectful but open approach illuminated the pressures the unit works under. It also showed how ideas from the research about learning cultures might enhance materials and strategies to improve practice.

Perhaps most importantly it challenged assumptions on both sides, including the stereotype of policy makers and researchers as remote from practice.

Of course, one seminar does not enable policymakers to change tack. Nor does it make researchers want to turn insights about learning cultures into recipes for change that match policymakers' targets. But as Jane Williams, head of the Post-16 Standards Unit, pointed out, policymakers rarely get time to stop and think about their experiences and assumptions in an open atmosphere of debate. And one of the researchers pointed out that academics rarely get a chance to get to know policymakers or to understand what they are trying to do. There's never enough time but at least talking is a start.

The seminar was held with two of the four co-directors of the Transforming Learning Cultures in FE (TLCFE) project in the Teaching and Learning Research Programme and 18 staff working on Success for All Theme 2 for the DfES post-16 Standards Unit

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