How I learned to stop worrying and love the data

A slavish devotion to spreadsheets is of little benefit to anyone, least of all children. But, argues headteacher John Tomsett, the right numbers used in the right way can change lives
12th June 2015, 1:00am


How I learned to stop worrying and love the data

Kain* is one of my school's most vulnerable students. He was hugely dependent when he joined us as a timorous 11-year-old. He would cling to you when you sat with him in class and become distressed when you left. He was deeply lacking in social confidence.

Last week I saw Kain, now 14, playing football on the tennis courts with a group of lads. He was really getting stuck in, fully part of the social fabric of the school.

You might think that such progress would be possible only in a school where data (by which I mean academic assessment and progress information) plays merely a bit part. After all, the popular argument is that an obsession with figures - and the accountability framework that goes with it - dehumanises students, moulding them into cogs designed to lift a school up in the league tables. You can't educate the whole child if they are a number, not a name.

But what if we have got data all wrong? What if its true value has been obscured by the rising tide of accountability measures and by its misuse in schools?

Here's something that might surprise you: Kain's progress, and the progress of many others in my school, has relied on data. In fact, I am firmly of the belief that if you want to educate the whole child, the use of data is not just advisable, it is essential.

The devil isn't in the data

I realise that the word "data" is repellent to the vast majority of teachers. Reducing a student to a set of numbers is abhorrent to any educator with a soul; we deal in flesh and blood, not wood and steel.

But data does not have to be the cold, hard axe of the inhumane. It has been a victim of misrepresentation, and school inspectorates - Ofsted in England, for example - have to take some of the blame. Ofsted's reliance on data breeds resentment among teachers. Data is the tool by which they are undermined; it is the stick with which their school is beaten.

"Ofsted wants the simplicity of numbers to explain a school's performance when, actually, what is happening in its classrooms is too complex to be explained by numbers alone," says Professor Robert Coe, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University.

Unfortunately, Ofsted's is often seen as the only way. At the micro level, the tendency towards simplification can lead to too many of us privileging what we can measure, even if it tells us little about the individual student's learning.

As Carl Hendrick, head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire, says: "It is very easy to transpose observable performance on to a spreadsheet, so that has become the metric used to measure pupil achievement and, concomitantly, teacher performance."

By the numbers

Data has become even more influential with the onset of performance-related pay. Headteachers may rail against Ofsted's oversimplified interpretation of data, yet even they can fall in love with what they can measure when it comes to the process of making pay decisions. But trying to make objective judgements about pay progression is impossible - the variables in just one class of 25 GCSE students, for example, are too numerous to measure.

And then you have target-setting. Tim Oates, group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, speaks brilliantly about how ascribing levels to students can limit our expectations of them. "In high-performing jurisdictions, when a teacher is asked why a child doesn't understand something, the teacher will say, `Because I've not presented it in the right way.' But in England the answer will tend to be, `Because they are a level 3,' " he says.

Teachers do not necessarily give that answer because they believe it is true; they give it because that is the culture. And working within that culture can be depressing, with data singled out as the cause.

But do we also have an inbuilt aversion to data? Last week I asked Jack*, a 15-year-old whose tracking data is a sea of red, how he was. Twenty minutes later, I walked away in awe of him. It turned out that he had been kicked in the back by a bull on his father's farm on Sunday and was still feeling sore. The day before he had been at an auction and he was dealing with the death of three of his calves.

I discovered that Jack had responsibility for buying and selling more than 100 calves. His father gives him a substantial sum of money; Jack has to make the purchasing decisions and his dealings have a turnover of pound;10,000. If he has to work all night, he works all night. When he is 16, he will have sole ownership of his grandfather's livestock business.

To look at his data and only his data, he appears to be failing badly. But after a conversation with Jack - the living, breathing epitome of entrepreneurial maturity and agricultural expertise - it is clear that he is an unbridled success. It's no wonder that some people deride data; it can give you only a partial view of a student.

Teaching with the enemy

As valid as these concerns are, we need to use them not to attack data but to keep it under control. We don't want the end of all data, but a sensible and productive use of the right data. If we want to ensure that our students progress, personally and academically, this shift is essential.

Let's go back to Kain. His progress is the result of a decision we made five years ago to use data to improve the transition from primary to secondary. In the first year of close links with our cluster of primary schools, we learned that a significant cohort of students in Year 5 (aged 9-10) had lower than expected attainment levels in literacy. Kain was one of them.

The primaries provided us with academic progress data for this group and, using the figures, we set about preparing for the students' arrival. The intervention we developed was targeted and radical. We ensured that the students, dubbed our "Golden 34", had an English lesson every day, taught by our shiniest, best teachers. We used the Read Write Inc programme, delivered by trained teaching assistants, to address basic literacy issues. We taught them Shakespeare in their first year with us and they learned how to write critically about the causes of Macbeth's tragedy. The education team from the Globe theatre in London delivered a workshop on Macbeth and I heard the Golden 34 discussing the problem of the dead butcher's ambition with great sophistication.

When Kain joined us, he found it hugely difficult to access the curriculum. His literacy levels were some of the lowest I had worked with in a mainstream secondary school. Kain's academic progress since, according to the data, is very good. Our data-driven intervention worked.

Here's another example. I taught GCSE English to a group of disengaged and disruptive boys. They were hand-picked according to the data, which told us that they were not making much academic progress.

A combination of their original teachers' progress data, my diagnostic test data and ongoing testing of their ability to complete exam-style questions helped me to provide the teaching that these students needed. I ditched the AQA anthology of short stories and got them to study Norman Mailer's account of the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. We also watched Leon Gast's documentary on the same event, When We Were Kings.

Their writing went way beyond what they had expected to achieve. At the end of the course, 70 per cent of them achieved a grade C or better in their language and literature GCSEs.

The whole child

These stories tell us two things. First, when data is used in the right way, it is not a barrier to teaching - it enhances it. Data did not stop me taking risks with my teaching; rather, it made me realise that I had to take risks if my students were going to make better academic progress.

But just as important is personal progress. One fact is often overlooked: if a student is academically successful, they are more likely to thrive in general. The best pastoral care for students from the most deprived backgrounds is a great set of exam results.

Take Liam*, one of those disengaged boys in my English class. Liam claimed free school meals. His behaviour, attendance and punctuality records were poor during his first GCSE year and he often engaged in silly and disruptive behaviour. But he gained a C in his English language GCSE and we let him into the sixth form with the minimum entry requirement. Every time I saw him, I told him how proud I was that he had made it to sixth form.

Liam embarked upon A-levels in applied business, applied science and food technology. He gained A, D and A grades respectively. His world view changed completely. As important as his grades were, his demeanour was just as crucial. At the end of his sixth-form career, he stood tall among his peers. He had grown into a polite and courteous young man.

A powerful tool

We all are emboldened by success. When young people from deprived backgrounds taste it for the first time, their whole sense of themselves grows. They begin to aspire beyond their perceived limitations. Data can be the key.

Of course, the role of the headteacher in using data to benefit the whole child is critical. It's easy, when faced with the demands of the job, to fixate on data and be ruled by it, but all that achieves is a poor learning experience for students and a frightened, mismanaged and misdirected group of teachers.

Headteachers have to learn to understand data. We have to give weight to different sources of information. We have to bring wisdom to the use of data at all levels in the hierarchy of the school.

We need to develop the leadership wisdom in our schools to ask better questions about what data is telling us. As Professor Coe says: "Number values as a code for a student's attainment and progress are just a starting point for triangulation. Data is never conclusive. Data can help us to ask better questions, especially if it doesn't match with what we think is happening with a student's learning."

If we don't use the numbers in this way then simplistic, crude interpretations of assessment data will create a culture of fear; teachers will play it safe and stop developing their practice.

Most of all, we have to remember that standards drive up data - the use of data alone doesn't improve standards. Truly great teaching is the only thing that will improve student outcomes. It's that simple. And if you can run a school where data helps to enhance teaching, without the data becoming an end in itself, then there is a good chance that your students and staff will thrive - personally and academically.

*Names have been changed. John Tomsett is headteacher of Huntington School in York and co-founder of the Headteachers' Roundtable thinktank. His book, This Much I Know About Love Over Fear, will be published by Crown House in October

Data and the research-led profession

The desire for teaching to become a research-led profession is often used to authorise vast data collection and dictate approaches based on the results.

In his new book, This Much I Know About Love Over Fear, John Tomsett says a balance can be reached. In this edited extract, he argues that data should be part of a research-informed school, not the basis for one.

We need to ensure that our knowledge about what helps children to learn impacts upon our classroom practice. We haven't got the money to experiment wildly to find out what works, and we don't need to - improving teaching is about deliberately working at the margins of our practice.

At Huntington School, we shape our improvement strategies by using educated intuition about what works, alongside the relevant educational research. We focus on implementation of strategies and we evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. We are intent on becoming a (cost-efficient) research-centred school.

Teaching will only become an evidence-based profession when a leadership wisdom creates structures in schools where classroom teachers:

work in an environment where continual improvement is the cultural norm;

can easily access good evidence;

feel encouraged and safe to change their practice in light of the evidence;

are supported by a school-based research lead who has a higher education connection;

can evaluate the impact of changes to their pedagogy on student outcomes.

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