Slay the data dragon

If you think that the key way to improve the education of your students is by understanding the school tracking data more clearly, then you don't need CPD; you need a priest, to pray for your soul.

I could weep at the thought of all those enthusiastic teachers rocking back into work after six weeks in reality rehab straight into a sucker punch of statistics and bar charts. It's as if some senior staff, envious of other teachers' perceived liberties, swear to share the hell in which they find themselves.

Of course, schools have to justify themselves externally. And I know that understanding the needs of pupils requires in part that you measure them collectively and individually against statistical expectations. But I implore all schools to consider just who needs to be concerned with this level of data and how deeply. Good teachers should know how all their children are doing. If they don't, that is a problem - not an excuse to view children as data points on a scatter graph.

That attitude might suffice for an external examiner or inspector. But it's fatal for the relationship between student and teacher. The teacher needs to see the pupil as a human being in a classroom surrounded by variables. Summative data tells only part of the story and to dwell on it necessarily excludes other ways of understanding who and what a student is. I see good teachers during blazingly boring data-driven Inset days twitching to prepare lessons, terrified to reveal how little they comprehend the numbers, convinced there must be something wrong with them. There really isn't.

Let the pure draught of data be reserved for those who need to understand it most: senior leaders and data managers. The ones who signed up for it. The rest of us chose a tour of duty in the classroom. Don't kill that love and passion by turning it into bean counting.

Two monsters loom between teachers and the ability to teach: behaviour and workload, the Scylla and Charybdis of the classroom. Yet good management can protect teachers from anodyne, unnecessary administration. It can turn a teacher's workspace from an aquarium into an ocean. Poor management seeks to justify its teaching and learning responsibility supremacy by inventing acts of bureaucratic pointlessness. It doesn't have to be this way.

The start of the year is a time for the meat and veg of teaching children - preparing rooms, resources, books, lessons, activities, trips. I invite all leaders in school to consider the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs story. Dissatisfied with the riches it dispensed, and convinced that greater treasures lurked inside, the farmer and his wife cut it open, only to find themselves with a dead goose and no more gold.

Schools can do that too. Sometimes in leadership, the hardest but most important thing to do is nothing; the temptation to act is often irresistible, as a surrogate for getting things done. But the business of schools is the education of children. The key facilitators of this are teachers. And teachers need to be free to teach.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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