'Don't wait for permission to take control of data'

Data drops do nothing to improve education – it's time for meaningful conversations about data instead

Ros McMullen

Teachers are drowning in data from the moment they get out of bed, warns Yvonne Williams

In February, Professor Becky Allen made a powerful contribution to the @HeadsRoundtable summit. She explained that we, as teachers, have been complicit in the audit culture that is drowning our schools. For me, the penny dropped, and ever since I have become more and more serious about unravelling the mess that I – yes, I admit my complicity – have helped to create.

The argument goes like this: "How can you prove students in your schools are making progress ‘from their relative starting points’?". Those "relative starting points" make it all seem so terribly reasonable. Except it isn’t reasonable, is it? The assumption that those starting points are or even can be accurately measured in the first place is seriously questionable. And then there's the further assumption that they can be an accurate and fair prediction of later attainment. This assumes that educators are working with children in hermetically sealed teaching laboratory conditions where the only variable is the quality of what goes on inside the school: it's ridiculous. 

My complicity in these assumptions was always driven by a desire to ensure that we banished the bad old days (which did exist, I remember them well) in which schools believed children from poor backgrounds could not be expected to achieve. It was driven, too, by the idea that social justice demanded high aspirations and expectations for all. 

I am still committed to that and always will be. However, what has to go is the industry of measuring and weighing, creating data for the purpose of justification and audit, rather than improvement, and a teaching force so exhausted by the audit culture that the joy and creativity of teaching is now gone from many classrooms and schools. We have hit a tipping point in the system: in many great schools we have more data about student "progress" than ever before but less time or ability to drive that progress.

The endless round of assessing students, entering data, analysing data, presenting the data in a different format for various audiences, scrutinising and reporting on the data has led to exhaustion among a growing number of schools and teachers. I call it "working hard to look good" when what we really need to be doing is "working hard to be good". The most serious aspect of this problem is that the very schools that need to be freed to get on with improving the curriculum and its delivery are the most under pressure to audit and justify. This is the backdrop to the recruitment and retention crisis at every level in our schools and we need to address this without waiting for the government or Ofsted

We certainly shouldn't for wait for permission.

We need 'data conversations'

We need to take back control. When a teacher is assessing, formally and informally, what they need to ask is: "Have these kids learned what I've taught them?" and "Have I effectively taught them to use this knowledge?"

The answers to these questions are useful to all. Teachers can adjust their practice appropriately. Heads of department can then work with teachers and improve the organisation of learning and the delivery of the curriculum. School leaders can adjust the curriculum, learning and teacher education in order to support teaching to become more effective. This is what data is needed for if we are to drive progress.

"Data entry" and "data drops" do nothing to improve the quality of what goes on in schools and they don’t help leaders understand what needs to be done to support improvement. 

What we need is "data conversations". These involve teachers being freed from individual marking in order to plan whole-class feedback, which is part of the lesson preparation process: What have I not taught effectively? What are the misconceptions? What are the aspects I know are secure with this class? How do I now move on? Do I need to re-teach? 

We are asking heads of department to hold conversations with teachers reflecting on these questions and to make a departmental response to improve the organisation and delivery of the curriculum in their areas. School leaders will now have conversations with the heads of department about what needs to be done to improve the curriculum, and its organisation and delivery. These conversations are what will produce data that is meaningful for the school improvement agenda and for designing CPD that is fit for purpose.

Teachers do not need to be working late into the evenings and at weekends laboriously marking; they do not need to be hurriedly entering data as calendared "data drops" loom, worrying about how this may inform their performance-management reviews. Instead, teachers need to have normal lives, in which, if they think of work while out socialising and relaxing, it is not to worry or feel guilty but to consider how to better transfer their subject knowledge to their classes; they need to be reinvigorated with a joy and passion for both their subject and for teaching. 

School leaders need to be looking at data produced through these meaningful conversations, not in order to justify their school’s performance, nor to lie awake worrying about losing their jobs, but to be able to support the improvement needed in their schools. They need to be in control.

Ofsted says it doesn’t want to see any data that we don’t use as a matter of course, but at the same time as telling us this, it always asks for more. What it needs is less data and we need to be brave and give it less. 

We need to stop playing silly games based on silly assumptions and take back control without waiting for permission.

Ros McMullen is executive principal of Midland Academies Trust and a founding member of @HeadsRoundtable

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Ros McMullen

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