'Why the data doesn’t work: teaching is more sophisticated, complex and human than results-driven businesses'

2nd February 2016 at 15:19
Data in school doesn't work
It’s time politicians and researchers acknowledged that the business approaches they advocate for schools demonstrate how little they really understand about teaching, writes one educational consultant

On Monday I heard Professor Andy Hargreaves, speaking at the Royal Society of Arts in London, make the point that data is essentially a commercial, not an educational, driver. I’ve waited a long, long time to hear someone else point this out.

When I changed mid-career from teaching to business, I was struck by several things. The first was how data-driven everything in a commercial environment is. Data is the bread and butter of any thriving business. Personally, I found it refreshing to have my work clearly and logically tied to someone else’s spreadsheet. It is a healthy place to be, as long as the dialogue between you and your line manager is equally healthy. You can measure your achievements easily and regularly, and – surprise, surprise – they even reward you when you do what you’ve agreed to do! It underpins everything but, as I quickly came to appreciate, it is also often the comfort blanket that indecisive managers cling to when decisions have to be made.

Data is food and drink to marketing and sales teams, and is the rock on which CEOs worldwide stand or crash. But as we have seen in recent weeks, it is also the currency that manipulative, arguably corrupt, executives deploy to justify personal or company performance.

Serendipitous isn’t a word I often get to use outside of crossword puzzles, but in the same week as I heard Professor Hargreaves expose the relationship between commerce and the use of data in education today, I also attended a conference on school choice run by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE) where the words "market" and "metrics" bounced around the room like table tennis balls.

The day with the CMRE was fascinating, informative and that rare thing in the education world, educational. But the one thing I came away utterly convinced about was that the data – those "metrics" currently being applied to real schools by researchers, governments and policy makers – are so crude as to be almost worthless.

Which brings me to the second thing that struck me when I changed careers. Schools are infinitely more sophisticated, complex experiences for the human beings working and learning in them, than any business I’ve ever worked in. They are messy, unpredictable and demanding in ways businesses literally can’t imagine. And that’s the problem. That’s where I am beginning to see a chasm in the international school reform agenda so big and so lacking illumination that Stephen Hawking would be interested.

I’m actually very happy with the premise that there are pragmatic things schools can learn from businesses. I was lucky enough to discover that as a young teacher many years ago, when an intelligent headteacher employed a couple of business experts to work with his staff on stress and time management. But at the same time, I sense there is an eagerness, a confidence among many in the school reform world that misunderstands completely just how different schools and teachers are to their own commercial, governmental or quasi-commercial environments.

Many teachers actively choose the profession as a kind of ethical option. For them, and I am not saying they are right, teaching and schooling is morally a better choice than working in commerce. I’ve seen it again and again over the years. The world’s schools are full of teachers who became teachers because they did not want to tarnish their principles with tawdry distractions like sales or profit. Indeed, national and international programmes encourage them to join the profession precisely for these kinds of reasons. More interesting – and far more significant to those trying to improve schools – is that great schools are full of people whose passion for the subject they teach is so intense, so all-consuming, they are selfish enough (appalling, I know) to want to pursue it as a career.

I’m often asked when people know I used to be a teacher, “Do you miss it?” I always answer "no", but there is one thing I miss hugely which goes right to the heart of this data devilry and explains why those so keen to use business as a model for schools should take note. Not a day went by in my last school when it wasn’t brightened, stimulated or improved by a conversation with a colleague, and even sometimes a pupil, about important things, things that matter. The commercial world has little time for such flippancy. Which is perhaps why even the giants amongst them seem to get the things that matter so badly wrong.

If we really want to see schools improve, and in this country that means something a tad more meaningful than a label from Ofsted, I think it’s time policymakers, researchers and some businesses displayed a little humility and acknowledged how little they really understand about schools.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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