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In one of his last contributions to our work – part of a long list of valuable work – the deeply-missed John Killeen observes...

‘Surprisingly little has been done in the UK to deepen our understanding of clients, either from a demographic and life situation perspective or from a career decision-making perspective. These kinds of knowledge undoubtedly exist, in an untested manner, as the more-or-less tacit professional knowledge of practitioners, but the mechanisms which might articulate them into systematic research are lacking in the UK’

John Killeen, and others,
Career Planning and Career Guidance: Mapping the Research Base.
Cambridge: National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, 2003

The forthcoming National Guidance Research Forum - and, in particular, its website - is where we will soon be able to make a start on the overdue task of articulating practitioner knowledge to systematic research.

This article outlines the main features of the site. It also addresses issues that it raises for the relationship between research and practice.


The National Guidance Research Forum

who runs it and what is it for?

The National Guidance Research Forum is a government-funded network operated by a consortium comprising...

> The Warwick Institute for Employment Research;
> The Institute of Career Guidance;
> The Guidance Council;
> The Centre for Guidance Studies;
> The National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling.

Funding is not indefinite, and - at some point - the forum will need to be able financially to sustain itself. Its purposes are to:

> identify gaps in current knowledge;
> identify keys areas for enquiry;
> formulate ways of investigating them.

It is called ‘a research forum’; and the consortium acknowledges that research effectiveness will be better served by bringing it closer to practice.

what are the aims and who is it for?

The website, currently in development, will support an on-line community. It is being designed to identify, explore and attempt to tackle the core problems and growing complexity of guidance practice. It means to do so by developing a learning base which is shared between practice, research and policy. The community is, then, a way of keeping each in touch with all.

The site will be open to anyone with an interest in guidance. The sponsors use the term ‘guidance’ in a broad sense; so it covers much of the ground indicated by The Café’s use of the term ‘careers work’.

The site is being designed specifically to be useful and usable by...

> practitioner;
> policy makers;
> researchers;
> managers;
> students and trainees;
> tutors and trainers.

In taking part, visitors will make contacts with colleagues and partners - from across this expanding field of activity.

how will it work?

The site will give voice to a range of different sorts of contribution: sharing experience, expressing views, arguing issues, and bringing in useful information.

Six focuses for these discussions are in development:

> improving practice,
> the role of guidance in life-long learning,
> international comparisons,
> quality assurance, performance management and impact analysis,
> learning styles for lifelong learning,
> equal opportunities.

Among the issues so-far used in testing the Forum’s interactive potential, are the following...

‘Careers guidance practitioners need to wake up to the idea that people will seek guidance from a range of different sources, both informal and formal: and may well make very effective decisions without ever darkening the door of a professional careers guidance worker?’

‘Recent documents have criticised guidance for being biased and suggest that it could, and should, be used to combat occupational stereotyping and address skills shortages in the labour market (e.g. getting girls and women into education and training for non-traditional occupational areas like science engineering and technology).

‘What relationship, if any, is there between quality assurance and quality assurance systems, and performance management and impact analysis?’

‘Once individuals understand how they learn most effectively, this can be a turning point in their confidence and willingness to engage in lifelong learning. Through playing to their strengths and developing weaker areas people are able to move far closer to fulfilling their true potential - not only in learning, but in life.’

‘Student Services Guidance keep sending the wrong students, students who don’t really understand what the course is all about and students who are not particularly up to it; no wonder there are so many dropping out.’

There are also areas of the site where visitors will be able to start new lines of discussion, make contributions, put up articles and pose further questions.

Discussions are monitored, and – if things go quiet - NGRF animators will occasionally step in with provocative ideas. Where any discussion offers some degree of resolution, it is edited into a coherent and compacted form. It then becomes part of growing collection of accounts of key issues and concerns for practice and research.

The site is, in this and other ways, developing an up-datable resource. There are also resources on occupational trends and a data-base of available research.

Issues for Practice and Research

practitioners advising researchers?

There is an issue about what distinctive authority practitioners can bring to the research discourse. In order to see what sort of authority that might be, it helps to review research in terms of its inputs, processes and outcomes. We may, then, be able to see where practitioners have useful things to say about research.



moving towards
research questions

doing the

putting the knowledge
into usable form


Input starts with commissioning the research. Funding is, of course, part of that input; and the extent of funding will say what kind of research is possible. But input also includes funder concerns – whether the funders are policy-makers, programme managers, research councils, or whatever. These are always influential inputs. They frequently refer to policy- and accountability-related issues.

Informed researchers naturally draw on ideas and findings from previous thinking and research. Those ideas come, not just from the careers-work field, but from ‘blue-skies’ thinking – often found in sociology, psychology or economics. Research questions cannot be formulated without the use of such ideas - whether explicitly or implicitly. But these ideas are not all that can be useful. The table (below) suggests that research in the careers-work field needs also to understand what is actually happening on the ground – in terms of point-of-delivery problems, issues. challenges and priorities. This background thinking, fed in at this stage, is about both what learners do and how provision tries to help. And it is what practitioners understand best. It can also take account of how people’s lives are changing, for example as a result of global developments and their impact on neighbourhoods. There are aspects of this thinking to which practitioners can make distinctively useful contributions. Not all of this close-to-home thinking is adequately represented in the policy and academic discourse; but all is essential to the formation of useful questions.

Output is where knowledge flows back into the field. The focus here is on how research findings are made usable. Funders almost always need enquiries and evaluations to help them determine what to do.

Practitioners, who rarely fund research, also need new knowledge in forms that they can use in their work. Research findings do not always frame new knowledge in such terms. But the problem is complex, because it is rarely possible for research to script specific responses for local - and changing - conditions. The table moves towards a way of dealing with the complexity, by suggesting that research should - of course - speak of what it observes; but that it should also identify key elements, their explanation and what seems to offer bases for further useful action. A formal research report is the not the only way of doing this; and we need to think about useful alternatives. Practitioners will be key sources of help in this search.

Process is how the inputted resources and ideas are translated into useful knowledge. The focus here is on using research in defensible ways – so that what the enquiry speaks of, corresponds in all important respects with the observed reality. This is where research expertise earns its credibility and trust.



about what is happening



about the enquiry



about the future



The analysis suggests possibilities for a research-group team-building tool. The NGRF will need such a tool. Nobody should expect practitioners to second-guess researchers on the processes of research.

authority in research and practice

The distinctive expertise of researchers is concentrated at the process stage.

But, at the input stage, researchers’ knowledge of psychology, and sociology and economics is drawn in – sometimes very usefully. Nonetheless, in general terms ‘academic’ and ‘useful’ knowledge are differently framed. Academia is structured by its disciplines, each with its own body of knowledge and associated method. Practice is structured by its roles, tasks and purposes; and these each manifest – at the same time - psychological, social and economic realities. Any area of academically-framed knowledge – however impressive - rarely makes better-than-partial contact with that across-the-board reality.

Knowing how things work in that across-the-board way is no less demanding than any academic study. Useful practical knowledge is hard-won. It is also a key input into any research programme that is meant to be useful.

It would not be appropriate to see academic and practical knowledge as in competition; nor is there any need to seek a special place in the process for practitioners. Practitioner authority is but one perspective – policy, academia and other stakeholders have others. But practice is as legitimate as any.

Practitioners authority is, however, also as distinctive as any. It derives from access to what is happening in the lives of learners. Practitioners understand - like no others - whether, when and how research is framed in terms that they can use in their work. Their voices are valuable, then, mainly in thinking about input and outcome.

Furthermore, there are some research activities, though mainly addressed to policy and management, where practitioners can usefully help to show how policy and management concerns can more fully be met.

practitioners as researchers

There is of course a long-standing history of practitioners undertaking their own enquiries and evaluations. This is where the practitioners becomes both the resource and the user of research – for such work is often undertaken voluntarily and from a sense of commitment to the field.

The NGRF can become a means of supporting and developing the role of the reflective practitioner in action research. It would, then, not only be about what practitioners have to offer to researchers; it would also be about what researchers have offer to practitioners as researchers. John Killeen would welcome this.


Sir Christopher Ball, in a Guidance Council review of possibilities for future research, sets out priorities for future development , including...

‘identifying leadership for a research strategy and creating a research forum’ – and concluding that it is time to ‘take a risk’.

The Guidance Council
Creating a Vision Beyond 2006: Identifying Research Opportunities
Winchester: The Guidance Council, 2002

It is isn't entirely clear whether Sir Christopher includes practitioners among the people who are to give leadership in this field. But in terms set out here, practitioners can provide significant parts of any lead that research can usefully draw upon. It is an important reason why the work of the NGRF can prove to be important.

The Career-learning Café is happy to help in any way it can – and will certainly keep its visitors in touch with developments


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