Long read: ‘Data ends up as the only way pupils are defined. Have we really sunk so low?’

9th August 2015 at 12:00
Taking on John Tomsett on data
The education system is being strangulated by a fixated hunt for the ideal, comprehensive and infallible data measurement system, writes one teacher

I read John Tomsett’s article on data with some interest because my school, like almost every other, is becoming progressively enslaved to the world of recording and interpreting data and using it to determine almost every aspect of teaching and learning. There was much to agree with in what he said, but a great deal that horrified me. It was clear that, despite his attempts to refute the idea that data turns into the be-all and end-all of education, he is arguing that we literally cannot teach well, or even realise that we need to teach well, without it.

Mr Tomsett is right about the culture of chasing data leading to fear. The obsession with data is leading schools deeper and deeper into a world of corruption, albeit often unconsciously, but driven by the need to see the numbers improve perpetually. It’s completely inevitable as anyone with passing familiarity with Stalin’s five-year plans would understand. Since teachers’ livelihoods, and career progression, are increasingly pinned to their ability to improve data, is it any surprise that the figures keep going up?

Data also leads to an obsessive misunderstanding of averages and means, resulting in a belief that children should all be operating at or above "the average", even though the figures this is based on vary wildly in their application from subject to subject and school to school. Yet, data can only measure a tiny part of a student’s progress in life, and even then only in the context of a general spread. Applying expectations to an individual student is a disastrously monochrome way to operate education yet I see this happening every day. Data ends up as the only way in which each student is defined within the system. Have we really sunk so low? It seems we are heading that way.

There appears to be a prevailing belief that with the use of data we can understand everything and control the world. To me, this is indistinguishable from the mentality of priests in the ancient world who believed that a ritual process, if operated correctly, could change the future. Of course, it never worked properly so just as the education system is being strangulated by a fixated hunt for the ideal, comprehensive and infallible data measurement system, so the priests of antiquity added tier after tier of rituals and incantations in a similar hunt. It never occurred to them – as it doesn’t to our high priests of educational data – that they might be barking up the wrong tree from the outset.

Mr Tomsett cites a number of instances in which he believes data has enabled him and his colleagues to help certain underperforming students. I was surprised that it took data for him to decide to teach GCSE English in a more imaginative and lateral way to "disengaged and disruptive boys". My question is why the rest of his students were sentenced to suffering the sad and tired old stuff that these boys had the presence of mind to rebel against.

Mr Tomsett says we should only use data in a particular way, but he is clearly convinced that when used in the right way, it is the magic solution. No matter that the data itself, which masquerades as some sort of scientific measurement, is hopelessly subjective in its nature. No two schools assess students the same way.

Throughout Tomsett’s article, every example cited is built around the belief that his students progressed because of his use of data, in particular the one he called Liam. He seems to perceive education as a one-way street, on which the students are the passive victims of badly interpreted data or the passive beneficiaries of the work of skilled professionals like himself, who can interpret data intelligently. No account is taken of how some (not all) students mature and become engaged as a matter of course.

I had a student once who arrived at sixth form barely able to write a page of extended composition. I taught him history and Classics A-levels. I have absolutely no idea what his data was when he arrived and nor am I in the least bit interested. What I know is that he had the chance to study subjects he was really interested in, neither of which he had studied at KS4. He was also 16 and growing up. Within a few months the difference was obvious as he threw himself into his work. He ended up with three very good A-levels and went on to study history at university. He did it himself. For teachers and headteachers who don’t understand the human beings in front of them, data is a substitute.

John Tomsett is right about the problems caused by the crude interpretation of data. But he also needs to recognise the limits to teaching. Truly great teaching is not the only way to improve student outcomes, whether driven by data or not.

One of my now-retired former colleagues said to me that teachers made very little difference in reality, but also that one way to help students was to be interested in them as individuals. That should be the starting point, not using data to tell you things that you should have been able to pick up immediately.

One of the greatest lessons any student can learn is that it’s up to them to do it for themselves and find their own way in life as individuals, not as someone who was defined by numbers and taught by teachers who only realised that they might need help because of those numbers. They also need to learn that although educational success might play a part in their futures it certainly won’t be the only factor; in some cases they will do well in life in spite of school, not because of it.

Having spent most of my life outside of education, I learned a long time ago that what matters in life is not what goes right, but what goes wrong and how one deals with that. Helping students both to understand this and that their futures are never going to be defined by the arid plains of a school spreadsheet, unless they let it, is one way teachers can make a positive contribution.


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