Too many teachers have spent far too much time in the past few years drowning in data, producing reams in order to demonstrate required levels of pupil progress in their class(es). Much of this data is inaccurate – manufactured to order for the school’s senior leadership team so that they can, when required, demonstrate that learning is taking place.
"It is," one teacher told me recently, "as if meeting every two weeks to sweat the data on certain pupils means that they really are learning and making progress. They aren’t. The data becomes the focus, not the pupils themselves."
It is pleasing, therefore, that Ofsted has admitted that "an industry has arisen around data, and what young people learn is too often coming second to the delivery of performance table data".
And it is heartening that Ofsted has acknowledged that "this data focus…leads to unnecessary workload for teachers, diverting them from the reason they chose to enter the profession".
The recognition of the effect on pupils and teachers caused by the drive for in-school data has led to a new approach by Ofsted, encapsulated in its proposals for its new inspection framework to be implemented in schools from September this year.
Ofsted’s draft inspection handbook clearly states that it does not require schools to produce performance and pupil tracking information. School leaders are warned: "If a school’s system for data collection is disproportionate, inefficient or unsustainable for staff, inspectors will reflect this in their reporting of the school."
All of which appears to be a remarkable volte-face.
But be warned. Ofsted is not proposing to abandon data as a key factor in its inspection judgements.
Inspectors will arrive at secondary schools armed with data on Attainment 8, Progress 8, the proportion of pupils entered for EBacc subjects and the percentage achieving level 4 and level 5 passes at GCSE English and maths.
Inspectors will arrive at primary schools armed with data on key stage 2 SATS results, the phonics test and to these will be added, in due course, the times table test and baseline assessment.
The problem with this is that Ofsted inspection grades are very strongly tied to the social intake of schools. And a school’s social intake disproportionately affects its results against national tests.
This problem has been exposed by Stephen Tierney in his blog Graphically Exposing Ofsted Bias? which revealed, using Ofsted’s own data, that secondary schools in the poorest areas are nine times as likely to be judged "requires improvement" or "inadequate". Schools in the most affluent areas are three times as likely to get "outstanding".
These revelations have led another commentator to question whether Ofsted is capable, in a two-day inspection, of tuning in to the positive work of the school. When four inspectors have only two days to inspect a large secondary school, they can only skim the surface. With the best will in the world, Ofsted will continue to pre-judge schools on the basis of the data.
Ofsted argues that its new focus on its proposed quality of education judgement, based in part on inspectors’ judgements of whether a school’s curriculum is "strong", will mitigate against the inspectorate’s previous over-reliance on data, with all the negative effects that Ofsted now recognises this has on schools serving poor pupil intakes.
I am unconvinced. A previous blog asks fundamental questions of Ofsted’s ability to make valid and reliable judgements on curriculum quality.
Inspectors, faced with a new inspection framework which requires them to make judgements on subjects and phases of schooling they have neither taught nor studied at degree level, are far more likely to rely on data sets as their solid evidence to underpin their judgements. This leaves schools in poor areas in continued danger of being awarded negative Ofsted inspection grades which fail to reflect the skills, endeavour and expertise of those who work in them, nor the quality of education they provide.
Mary Bousted is the joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union