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Making Space for the Voice from FE – Establishing a Practitioner led Research Network in a Further Education Institution

By Naomi Knott, Curriculum Lead for Teacher Education & Counselling at Sandwell College


I have an emergent interest to support professional learning in Further Education (FE) through practitioner-based research. Research does take place within FE at a local level but does not always enter the public realm (Solvasson and Elliot, 2013). Undertaking my own research for an MA at the University of Wolverhampton fuelled my desire to explore the opportunities for creating a research group at the FE college where I am employed.

There are limited examples of research in Further Education (FE) from within the sector (Lloyd and Jones, 2018), as most research has been produced by people employed in Higher Education (HE). FE practitioners are beginning to ask why others speak on their behalf (Jones, 2020). In November 2020 I also attended the Society for Education and Training (SET) conference. Listening to Sam Jones (Bedford College) and Jo Fletcher-Saxon (Ashton Sixth Form College) speak about FE research networks enthused me to start a research group with my college, Sandwell in the West Midlands. 

Meeting with new Vice Principal, Patrick Geary, scheduled I resolved to be bold and request to lead on a research group; after all the worst that could happen was that I was refused.  Fortunately, Patrick was enthusiastic about the idea, and the group held their first meeting on the 15th December 2020. 

Establishing the Research Group would have been much more difficult if I didn’t have the exceptional support from my colleagues within the PCE team at Wolverhampton University. They have cheered me on from the side-lines and offered endless support throughout all of my ventures to date. Other support came from the FE community via Twitter and in blog forums. I reached out for some support with my new venture and quickly received offers of help. Learning from and with others has been, and will continue to be, a significant part of the process of creating a research culture at Sandwell College.

I met with Sam and Jo who shared their experiences of setting up their research groups. Gary Husband (Stirling University) and the Association of Research in Post Compulsory Education (ARPCE) journal also shared ideas, particularly around how the group may publish work. Since the first meeting others have asked how they can establish something similar in their own institutions.

Currently the research group is designed to be an informal gathering space where individuals can share their research interests and garner support from their peers. The group uses Slack as an online collaborative space where ideas, readings and updates can be shared by anyone. The group consists of research enthusiasts ranging from novice researchers to those who have been involved in projects with larger organisations. 

Before our initial meeting, I invited interested parties to share their research ideas using an online mind mapping tool called Padlet. There were a range of ideas shared from exploring the impact of physical exercise and nutrition on concentration to whether teacher identity has an impact on their use of technology. There were also other interesting areas such as exploring the impact of an organisational coaching structure on staff and students. All of these contributions led to an encouraging first session where individuals had the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and see where potential collaboration on projects could take place.  Our second gathering began to see more networking between individuals as research ideas began to align.

At the first session, a cross section of the college shared their research ideas and proved that those within FE either wish to be or are research active (Lloyd and Jones, 2018). I am keen for the group to evolve into a community of practice: a group of people who have a shared interest and ‘who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002, p.4). This community of practice is particularly important as the research group, or network, is about bringing a spotlight to the research already being undertaken within our FE institution, and eventually this work will be amplified through wider FE communities such as Teacher Education in Lifelong Learning (TELL), Amplify, POST16 educator and others.

What is very interesting is that despite currently having no time/ remission/ money for undertaking research (Llyod and Jones, 2018), many of the research ideas shared were from people who are not currently undertaking any formal study.  It is still very early days for us, but what is quickly becoming apparent is that we will need to start working out processes for approval for conducting Action Research projects, particularly those that are not attached to a qualification such as an MA/ MSc.

Other FE institutions such as the Bedford College Group and Fircroft College have incorporated action research as a CPD option, and this is something that I hope we will build in to our offer at Sandwell. The members of the Sandwell College Research Network are enthused about establishing research in our institution, and I have a personal agenda that any research we undertake is of good quality, ethical and contributes something to policy or practice. Some other colleges who are already considering ethics in research are sharing their processes with me and my colleagues at the University of Wolverhampton are also happy to provide guidance in this area. I’m hopeful that we will be able to start collaborating and working on new practitioner led projects by the start of the next academic year. Prioritising the research that is already taking place within the college will give us time to establish our own processes, make connections with others in the organisations and refine any research proposals that we wish to take forward.

What is becoming apparent is that the wider FE Research community is vast, gathering momentum and scholarly recognition. The voice of researchers from within the FE sector are beginning to be heard, and I am only too happy for our institution to be part of that.


Jones, S. (2020) ‘Why do we not value the voice of FE Teachers?’ Accessed 18/02/21 [online]

Lloyd, C. and Jones, S. (2018) ‘Researching the Sector from within: the experience of establishing a research group within a FE college’. Research in Post Compulsory Education. 23 (1) pp 75-93.

Solvason, C. and Elliot, G. (2013) ‘Why is Research Still Invisible in Further Education?’ Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education 6 (Nov) pp 1-17.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R.A. and Snyder, W. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

1 Comments on “Making Space for the Voice from FE – Establishing a Practitioner led Research Network in a Further Education Institution”

  1. You are doing some wonderful work in FE Naomi. Research in FE, by FE for FE. I look forward to reading more about your work.

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