Building a community of practice for college research

Building a community of practice for college research
Date5th Apr 2021AuthorRae ToothCategoriesPolicy and News

A community of practice (CoP) is defined as a group of people who "share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly". The concept was initially proposed by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger. A CoP can evolve naturally because of the members' shared interest in a particular field or be created deliberately. While most groups would historically have met in person at conferences, seminars or workshops, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to new networks of people, often in geographically disparate locations, coming together to discuss their shared interests virtually. 

A key characteristic of CoPs is that, as Wenger puts it, they are formed by people:

who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour:  a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope.

We can now add to this list: college teachers engaged in research activity. A new FE research community of practice has been established by Villiers Park Educational Trust, the national social mobility charity I am chief executive of, which works with 14-19 students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We support young people to grow their skills, knowledge and agency, so they have mastery over their lives. We partner with colleges, schools and universities on widening access to educational opportunities. We build evidence and understanding of how the system must change to make it just. We can then use the knowledge from this activity to both inform our own practice and campaign for better policy, systems and social structure. 

Communities of practice and learning are central to how Villiers Park operates as an organisation, and we have plans to launch other communities for practitioners working in higher education and in schools in due course. Our collective work is underpinned by a commitment to sharing our expertise and experience and learning from each other to support a process of continual improvement and maximise the impact of our work with disadvantaged young people. 

This is precisely what we want to achieve with our new FE CoP, which has been made possible with the generous support of the Further Education Trust for Leadership. To date, over 100 people have registered, and a high proportion of them attended our first online discussion earlier this month. I want researchers working in sixth form colleges to play an important role in this initiative. I know of fascinating work already being carried out across the sector, which the CoP is intended to complement. Jo Fletcher-Saxon, assistant principal at Ashton Sixth Form College, co-founded the #FEresearchmeet movement, which is playing a key role in facilitating the sharing of ideas and contacts across the country (she also wrote a blog for Blog 6 on the lessons of lockdown 1 for teaching, which you can read here). And individual colleges are also making real inroads – not least Christ the King Sixth Form College, which as far back as 2016 hired a researcher-in-residence after more than 60 teachers completed research projects over a three-year period. I know there is lots more activity going on under the radar which we would love to shine a spotlight on.

There are two main strands to our community. Using Teams, we have created an online space for communication, discussion and peer support. We aim to seed and build the volume of discussion, drawing participants into thinking about contemporary challenges and contexts and co-developing an evidence base. Alongside this, we will create and facilitate online events to give practitioners and researchers a platform to share thinking and practice and discuss contemporary issues with their peers. The details of the next few sessions will be published shortly on our website and social media channels. We look forward to running face-to-face activities and workshops as soon as we are able. 

The project has been greeted with enthusiasm by the post-16 research community, and we are grateful for the support of the Sixth Form Colleges Association. As chief executive Bill Watkin put it:

“Sixth form colleges have a history of working with students for whom the widening participation agenda is critically important and they will welcome this Villiers Park initiative. Colleges are committed to social mobility and educational access, and recognise the imperative to give a chance to all students, whatever their background, who aspire to higher education. Increasingly, college teachers are sharing research, ideas and strategies that open doors to the best opportunities for everyone in the college. This new community of practice will help them to develop and disseminate the latest thinking and ideas, helping all their students to realise their ambitions.”

We at Villiers Park are optimistic that the FE CoP will evolve and grow in the coming months to become a valuable resource for the sector, and a vehicle by which the status and profile of practitioner-led research can continue to increase its reach and impact – for the benefit of both the sector as a whole, and the inspiring practitioners who make it what it is.

To join the community please register at: If you would like to discuss your own research project at one of our online meetings, please contact Stephen Exley, our director of external affairs, at

Rae Tooth is chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust.

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