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Don't store up trouble

A data-rich school does not have to be a threatening environment for teachers, says Gerald Haigh.

The computer in the school office now contains thousands of attendance figures, test results and behaviour scores.

While it makes pupil performance easier to track, it is also seen as a way in which teachers can be judged. How can this issue be tackled?

The first essential is not to be too starry-eyed about the technology. Management information software, like any other powerful tool, is invaluable in the right hands.

It's easy to be drawn into collecting too much - then the task of handling and analysing data grows out of all proportion to any possible benefit. What you want are simple scales, applied uniformly between teachers and department. Some secondary schools use the GCSE grade scale - so, at regular intervals, every subject department will give every pupil a single letter grade. Another school might use national curriculum levels as its standard scale.

The same goes for behaviour measures - you tot up "incidents" or "events" (positive and negative) as recorded, and convert them each half term to a simple grade.

This, though, is only the start. The real power of your computer lies in its ability to sort out the data and enable you to make comparisons.

There are many possibilities here for school management teams. Christopher Reynolds, head of St Benedict school in Derby, who is piloting a new computerised management system gives this example: "Tomorrow, a parent is coming to see me. It will be a difficult interview. He is disputing our decision to put his daughter in the second maths set, instead of the top one. But I will call up on my computer screen all the data that our decision was based on. He will probably still disagree, but he will be able to see the decision is not based on prejudice or hasty assumption."

The most difficult management challenge, though, is going to be using data to compare the performance of teachers.

If one of two geography groups are doing worse than oters, then unless you can clearly see other reasons for the difference, you are drawn to the conclusion that one teacher is better than the other. Similarly, if an individual pupil shows an obvious "dip" in a subject, then his or her parents might be justified in asking questions about the teacher.

It is wise to remember that the analysis of statistics is filled with traps. A Midlands head discovered recently that a particular room in her school was producing more detentions than any other. Not a teacher, because lots of teachers were involved, but a room. How can one room get more pupils into trouble than another? It may be overheated, or big enough to tempt the back row into trouble, or have difficult accoustics. Or the results might be pure chance.

In the same way, it's facile, and professionally suspect, to be too quick to blame the teacher when a group turns in a poor performance. First, you need some knowledge of statistics, and you clearly need to apply commonsense. When and where does the group have its key lessons for example? In the temporary hut, in the afternoon, following PE? The very worst thing you can do is forget all the professional, management and people skills that you have gathered over the years, just because a computer screen seems to tell a simple tale.

It is true that collected data is now given much more weight by the coming of performance related pay. The good news, however, is that in the data-rich school, the data is open for inspection. If the school is well managed, with no blame culture, there will be a climate of mutual support and open discussion.

In such a supportive culture, teachers can then help each other to fill the gaps in their professional skills.

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