by Laura Kayes
The landscape of educational discourse in England is one of shifting sands, and nowhere does this sifting instability feel more tumultuous than in further education. It has long troubled me that a significant imbalance exists between research in further education and research in schools, and the result is a college sector that is ill-equipped to bargain in the currency of data. Data, particularly numerical data, is a powerful persuader in this digital, marketised world. Yet, whilst schools speak in numbers to policy and press, further education finds its voice lost in a dialogue we are not yet fluent in. As a result we are disempowered when challenging the systemic neglect and reactive reform we continue to have imposed upon us.
Before I continue, I’d like to acknowledge that it is not my intention to diminish the role or contributions of our school colleagues, but only to request equity of representation and recognition for the further education sector, and a space at the table to contribute to the broader discussion.
The dynamics of colleges, vocational programs, apprenticeships, and adult education differ significantly from those of primary and secondary schools. Education policy and evidence-informed practice has been a saturated school-centric narrative for too long, relegating further education to a blurry periphery. This language and focus has contributed to negligence of policy and public mistrust in a further education sector perceived as a secondary option for ‘other peoples’ children’. A spotlight on the unique challenges and celebrations of our colleges is long overdue. It is my belief that such a transition begins with context-specific research and a shared, accessible platform to voice the experiences, needs, opinions, hopes, and frustrations of individuals and communities within and served by further education colleges.
There is already a hopeful momentum building with further education research communities. There are organisations and individuals championing the sector’s voice, delving deeply into stories of joy and justice locked within this muted sector. There is also rich dialogue emerging on how a collective voice can be crafted and amplified outwith the confines of traditional research hierarchies. For whilst there is much to celebrate in the potenia of such a movement, it must also be recognised that some voices are unwittingly excluded by the structures and hierarchies of our institutions. Many of us driving forward research in further education are removed or partially removed from the classroom; we’re in leadership, higher education, administrative or consultancy roles that allow a flexibility in our schedules that the rigid timetable of a teacher does not. Many researchers are undertaking their projects as part of formal qualifications, and whilst some of us are privileged to be financially supported to do so, others are self-funded or prevented from embarking on their research journeys by a monetary inability to do so. These roles, these qualifications, these funders and these financial arrangements all shape the research that takes place, or does not. This is not to detract from the value of their contribution, but to recognise that it does inevitably guide the direction of travel.
For any sector to flourish, the voices of practitioners, those in the classrooms, breathing life into policies published in darkened rooms, must also be heard. Their experience and insights are essential, unheard components for shaping effective policies and practices. Empowering further education requires not just acknowledgement but active engagement with expertise from every role within the sector. By including practitioners in decision-making processes, policies can be grounded in the reality of classrooms and the experiences of students, teachers and communities.
Inspired by the success of the Teacher Tapp app, which provides a platform to the voices of thousands of school teachers every day, I have launched a weekly poll for further education practitioners. Teacher Tapp, with their regular engagement with policy makers and media, has successfully demonstrated how the collective voice of educators can be heard and can effect change. It is my hope that our own small, weekly poll will lay the fragile foundations of a soon-to-be mightly bridge between policymakers and practitioners.
The poll will generate a new question every Wednesday at midday, and results from the previous week will be released alongside this. You can access the poll every Wednesday at midday here:
You can also submit your own research question for the poll using the form below:
Poll entries are anonymous, and no personal or identifying data will be released to third parties.
So there it is! A simple poll with a powerful objective; to enrich this precious sector in the currency of data. Thank you in advance for your investment.