'We have enough data on our pupils and schools. Perhaps it’s time to concentrate on information that helps the school community develop its potential'

15th November 2013 at 14:57
James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex’s School of Education and Social Work, writes:
"Do you know the children you teach? I mean really ‘know’ them? In the Eighties I had a mark book full of codes to signify progress, achievement and special educational needs. It was invaluable at parent evenings – attendance, classwork grades, homework completed/missed or late, test results, end of year exam averages etc.
I also had a book which recorded information about the children. From hobbies, likes and dislikes, to who were their friends/enemies. That book never saw the light of day at a parent evening, but the information it held was crucial to the progress and success of my pupils.
Computers, databases, spreadsheets and the requirements of government, local authorities, academy chains and senior leadership teams in schools, has turned every child into a rich seam of data for teachers to mine, retrieve and manipulate.
We are data rich, but information poor.
The data seam is almost limitless. From nursery onwards, we collect data as if it’s a rare, precious jewel. OFSTED, senior leaders and managers covert these data jewels and regularly demand that we mine more and more. They lock them away from prying eyes and craft them; constantly manipulating data to see which combinations shine most brightly and show the school in its full glory or, if you are not an academy, its shame.
Constant testing, from the phonics check to the plethora of internal and external tests and examinations replenish recently mined data jewels ensuring a constant supply.
The danger of an endless stream of data is that education becomes ‘management by spreadsheet’. Performance management of teachers and their pay will use aspects of this mountain of data. We must be careful. It’s tempting to link pay to results, but as far back as the early 20th Century it was recognised that payment by results simply led to teachers not educating children, just teaching them how to pass tests.
I doubt any school performance management and pay policy would be so crude, but there’s another temptation to resist: simply looking at data – even a wide range of data – and judging our children (teachers and schools) by merely manipulating and comparing these data to ‘norms’ – be they local, regional, national or even international.
Information about a child (or the community of people that make a school) contains nuances that data can’t show. Day to day happiness (which can affect learning) can’t be captured in a grade or mark. The enthusiasm a child, or for that matter a teacher, has for a subject won’t fit into a spreadsheet.
Building knowledge and understanding of the home life of a child, the relationships that exist between members of the family, understanding their hopes, desires and aspirations won’t generate a number that can be manipulated. The cultural heritages that members of the school community bring and how relationships build within schools or with the wider community cannot easily be captured for data analysis.
Surely we have enough data on our pupils and schools? Perhaps it’s time to concentrate on information that will help the school community to grow and develop to full potential.
Education isn’t about filling children’s heads with facts then testing recall. We have to take account of context, not just the context of learning, but also the context within which the child and teachers exist day-to-day. To understand this, we need information, not data."

You can follow James on twitter: @edujdw


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