The head's view - Traffic-light data makes me see red

Ben Slade

We all know the power of data. They give us a valuable insight into students' potential and help us make the right interventions to help them succeed. But I worry that we lose sight of the individual and the Every Child Matters agenda in a sea of "traffic lighted" performance figures.

I believe the factors that have made my college's results go up from 32 per cent last year to 50 per cent this year have less to do with scrutiny of Venn diagrams, scatter plots or bar charts, and more to do with ensuring high-quality teachers are in front of the students; making the environment conducive to learning; stressing the importance of stakeholder voice in the school improvement process; establishing a clear vision and plan for the future that is widely shared and regularly revisited; and setting challenging targets allied to the aforementioned.

At my college, visitors are encouraged to ask students what they think of our college. They always say, "We like it here ... We feel safe here ... Teachers want us to do well." This is a testament to the quality of our teaching, pastoral care and inclusion. But ask them about their views of their potential or ambitions, and responses are more alarming: "I can't do it ... I'm no good at this ... My parents didn't like school ... I'm not clever enough for university." Raising aspirations is vital in changing students' self-perceptions and unlocking their potential. This must also apply to many students across the country, some of whom are driven towards gangs and knife culture in order to feel valued.

Where is the government initiative to raise student aspirations? It doesn't exist, mainly because the impact of such schemes cannot easily be measured at quarterly intervals for data to be neatly placed in a quadrant graph that compares one school with every other. I will never forget the phrase uttered by an eminent figure in education recently: "We want all schools to perform in line with the top 25 per cent of schools nationally." I am not a maths specialist, but I am sure this is statistically impossible.

I have expressed my views on the National Challenge in The TES and to the Secretary of State, but have had only an automated response from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), which said it was "looking forward to my college performing above the floor targets in the future". But the point was that we had exceeded these by 12 percentage points and wanted to know the mechanism for exiting the Challenge cohort.

The Department has produced some useful resources, such as the subject audits and Core Plus materials, but that initiative relies almost entirely on regular monitoring of data and reporting back to central government and local authorities on progress towards a range of targets. It does not seek to address problems of low aspiration, lack of parental engagement, attendance and attitudes to learning.

In line with the data culture, we have set very challenging targets - well above Fischer Family Trust "D" (top 25 per cent of schools) for our current Year 10 - a huge challenge. But because these targets are still below 30 per cent including English and maths for 2010, we have been told to "set targets that are above 30 per cent because anything lower will not be accepted by the DCSF". Surely this is a nonsense unless significant funding is allocated to schools to deal with this?

Ben Slade, Principal of Manor Community College, Cambridge.

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