Using evidence to inform decisions across FE and adult learning is more important than ever. In a post-pandemic world where investment decisions need to be made rapidly, it’s essential that we make effective use of research and evaluation in designing the services that will help Britain to build back better.
In some recent work with the Social Mobility Commission, we found that the evidence base in FE and adult learning is somewhat fragmented. This is perhaps not surprising when we consider the complexity and scale of post-16 learning. While networking opportunities exist to share best practice in FE, the use of experiments, testing and piloting of key programmes is not as widespread as we might hope. We have called for more investment in ‘what works’ activity in FE and adult learning to create, share and use evidence more effectively.
Building on this, Learning and Work Institute undertook work to better understand how organisations and institutions across the FE, adult learning and skills sector use research and evidence to inform their decision making. We spoke to a range of learning and skills stakeholders, from adult education providers, to local authority skills specialists and trade unions – all in order to explore the types of research and evidence stakeholders engage with in their work, the extent to which it influences their decision making, and the barriers that exist to effective evidence use to improve policy and practice.
Stakeholders we spoke to understood the value and credibility of using evidence to support policy and practice decisions. Most used published statistics, government guidance and government funded research reports. However, these resources were sometimes described as ‘impenetrable’ and less accessible for those outside the research community. Stakeholders also had limited time and resources to identify good quality evidence and a ‘hub’ for FE and adult learning research would have supported wider evidence use.
There were concerns about the validity of some evidence being used regularly by stakeholders and a lack of understanding amongst some organisations on how to assess quality effectively. These factors often led to limited or partial use of evidence to support key investment decisions. We also identified a number of gaps in the existing evidence base and areas for future research. These included identifying effective approaches to engaging and supporting disadvantaged groups in FE and adult learning, assessing the impact of soft skills development in adult learning; and understanding what works in relation to the devolution of the Adult Education Budget.
The FE and adult learning sector is large, diverse, and crucial to our recovery from the crisis. There is a clear need for the creation of a central evidence hub for FE, adult learning and skills that collates and reviews existing evidence. We need more formal mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration to support knowledge building, trial development and future evidence generation. The development of toolkits and training that aim to improve organisational capacity would also go some way in supporting better evidence informed decision making.
Through supporting a greater focus on evidence, and building a stronger evidence base, we can both improve decision-making around investment, and better demonstrate the impact we deliver.
Learning and Work Institutes’ What Works Unit exists to promote and enable the use of evidence in decision making in employment, learning and skills. If you would like to find out more, please visit our website.
Fay Sadro, Head of Evidence and Evaluation, Learning and Work Institute
Fay leads Learning and Work Institute’s What Works Unit, which champions the use and creation of evidence to inform decision-making and support lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion. Before joining L&W, Fay acted as head of research at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and has also held roles at the University of Leicester, Ipsos MORI and NatCen. Fay supports a range of organisations to better understand and interpret evidence, alongside generating new evidence on what works to improve employment and learning outcomes.