In your school, has data become an out-of-control monster with no one to tame it? Do you talk about data as if it is completely divorced from what it represents? After all, data is just information about children and yet it’s often approached as if the two have nothing in common.
In schools, we add more and more to the list without taking anything off. We feel like we have to know the level at which children started, where they are now, where they’re aiming and where the gaps are. But now we feel the need to note how the less able are doing, and the middle achievers, and the high attainers; plus another layer for girls and boys; and free school meals and Pupil Premium kids; not to mention different ethnicities, looked-after children, English as an additional language, special needs, and gifted and talented… Some places track by postcode, by feeder school and whether pupils were born in the summer – or even if they were born prematurely.
Ofsted has fed some of this obsession but, in truth, the myths around Ofsted are learned from inspection anecdotes. I remember being told by a colleague at a city-wide meeting that their lead inspector had asked about how students identifying as LGBT were doing... and that message slowly cascaded down through the leadership layers. We must stop these Chinese whispers and trust Ofsted’s clarification of what they do and do not expect to see during inspections.
For every extra cohort sub-group, for every extra bit of information you decide you need, someone will have to enter, check and analyse it. With some schools collecting this data six times a year or more, we’re constantly ‘weighing the pig’ and forgetting to feed it.
It’s time to stop. Please, just stop. Here are some questions to ask yourself before collecting data:
STEP 1: Why do we need to collect this information on children? What is its purpose? Does everyone in the school understand these reasons and subscribe to them? Like every other strategic action in a school, unless everyone is on board it will never work; this is why so many currently resent and fear data.
Information about children enables us to better craft their curriculum and our teaching; we need to know where and how children are falling behind to enable us to close those gaps. The Department for Education-commissioned independent report on workload burdens around data is clear: “Too often the collection of data becomes an end in itself, divorced from the core purpose of improving outcomes for pupils.” If you always start with the why, you should narrow your purpose and use the ‘aide memoire’ in the report to help you ask similar questions.
STEP 2: What information do you need to collect? Strip it right back. Start with a blank page for your school or department and agree what you need to know. Don’t fall back on “Ofsted will ask…” because they probably won’t. An Early Years provider will need to collect different information from a further education college; a grammar school something different from a special school – be selective. It also goes without saying that you really shouldn’t be collecting learning styles any more. If you limit the what, you will reduce workload for all.
In any case, data is no substitute for the wealth of informal knowledge and assessment that teachers hold on children. You can rarely capture this in numbers and so it should never replace informed discussions between professionals.
STEP 3: How often do you need to collect this information formally? Be honest. Some schools collect data six times a year as it falls in neatly with terms. However, the more time teachers can spend teaching and children learning, rather than taking tests to discover what has stuck, the better. Given that every teacher can provide a detailed narrative about each child at any point in the year, how many times does this need to be written down? The fewer data captures there are, the less workload there is for everyone.
STEP 4: What are you going to do with this data anyway? Before you collect it, decide how it will be processed and analysed and by whom. Teachers are already analysing what they know about their pupils every day and adjusting their teaching because of it. Are you really going to ask your senior team and middle leaders to replicate the same work?
As one such leader used to tell me after each data crunch: “It’s not told us anything we didn’t already know, so what was the point?” A much better use of the team’s time would have been to get together to agree what they were going to do to improve outcomes. Besides, it’s possible to buy software that will do a lot of the analysis for you – invest in that, it saves time.
STEP 5: Teachers, take back control. Own the data you enter and talk to your leaders about steps one to four – be part of the game. Use data as your evidence base for the resources and time you need to improve outcomes for your classes. If you know a particular group in your class is struggling with something, find someone doing well with those pupils and learn from their approach. Data is unlikely to tell you anything new about your own class – but it can lead you to the holy grail in another room.
Read more about the government’s policies on reducing teacher workload here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload.