School data: tool or tyrant?

One of the many things that would amaze anyone unfamiliar with the modern primary school, is the mind-boggling amount of data that is either produced by schools themselves or generated by others.

Not only does this result in torrents of paperwork in the form of charts, tables, spreadsheets and action plans but it also generates a language of it’s own. A teacher is not a teacher unless they can wax lyrical about points progress, two level gains and age related expectations. These then become truncated to PP, 2LG and ARE, which has the dual purpose of saving time and baffling the outsider.

Much of this data is invaluable. It enables schools to target and support children who are slipping behind their peer group, as well as zooming in on groups of children who are missing out. At a click of a button, schools can check whether summer born girls are doing as well in maths or whether Somali boys are catching up with their reading. Data, at least in part, can be a useful tool to drive fairness and equality – no child should be left behind.

Equally, data is useless if the methodology is flawed (read this excellent deconstruction of RAISE online here), if the assessments underpinning the data are weak or unreliable, or if too much weight is put on what are often subjective judgements (for example, an assessment of a child’s writing ability). If this is the case, data can be more of a tyrant, used to exploit weakness and make unreasonable demands on exhausted teachers.

Also, there comes a point, depending on the characteristics and context of your school cohort, when large pinches of salt need to be applied to the crude figures. My school, for example, has such a high proportion of children eligible for pupil premium, with deeply rooted deprivation even for those children who fall outside of the pupil premium net, that this measure becomes almost meaningless. If we look at raising attainment of deprived children, then we find ourselves coming full circle – it’s everyone. Needless to say, Ofsted don’t have much sympathy for these subtle realities.

Data works when it is used as part of the jigsaw, alongside the professional judgements of a skilled and observant teacher and with the knowledge that children develop in different ways at different times. Whatever the demands of Ofsted, children are not programmed to march like robots along a predictable trajectory.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “School data: tool or tyrant?

  1. As a school governor we see a lot of data presented in meetings, which is entirely right. If we didn’t see the data we would question why not.

    The headteacher uses the data very well to target strategic interventions in the school, but there is always the fine balance you describe here. Namely using the data where appropriate, but not letting it dictate everything. Furthermore there is the need for that healthy scepticism about what the numbers mean, and how this may not tell the whole story – or sometimes even the ‘wrong story’.

    Unfortunately the dominant ideology in some schools is a technocratic mangerialist one and then the data does truly become a tyrant. Then the autonomy and judgement of educators becomes subsumed beneath its seductive power.

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