'Teachers believe their profession should be evidence-informed – not unreasonably, they'd like the same from education policy-making'

Workload is still 'the elephant in the room' preventing schools from utilising e-assessment and data in the classroom to inform their practice, writes one veteran education journalist

Richard Garner

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I recently attended a Westminster Education Forum conference on e-assessment and using data in the classroom.

At first sight it looks a dry topic but there is general consensus it's the growing thing – and it doesn't just mean using data to track exam performance.

A number of the firms addressing the company have started up during the past couple of years – but, for schools, it must be a nightmare deciding which one offers you the best option.

According to one of the contributors, John Winkley, chairman of a multi-academy trust in West Yorkshire responsible for seven schools, standards differ widely between the groups seeking school contracts.

Despite the increase in activity, it's still only responsible for a miniscule proportion of the overall education budget – just 0.3 per cent, according to Greg Watson, former head of the OCR exam board who is now with GL Assessment which is described as the leading provider of benchmarking, formative and diagnostic assessments to UK schools.

While some schools are clearly at the forefront of using this new technology both to inform them of their pupils' progress and to improve their teaching standards, others – possibly because of a lack of technological expertise among school leadership teams – are more reluctant to dip their toes in the water.

Then, of course, there is what was graphically described by Nansi Elllis, assistant secretary of the ATL teaching union, as "the elephant in the room" – or, to be more precise, workload.

The latest workload statistics published by the Department for Education show that 93 per cent of teachers believe workload to be a fairly serious problem and 52 per cent say it is a very serious problem. 

On average, teachers work a 54 and a half hour week – over 30 hours of which are spent on non-teaching activities.

Even given the propensity for all employees – not just teachers – to exaggerate their poblems (you're not going to say workload is not a problem and you've got time on your hands in case the department lands the profession with extra tasks), these are fairly significant findings.

The average teacher is not going to take kindly to the head who says: "Hey, I've got this whizzo idea (apologies to Whizz – one of the new providers at the conference), that will help you track the performance of every single pupil.  It'll only take you a couple of hours every week."

Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that teachers want their profession to be an evidence-based profession and – in the best-run schools – the introduction of e-assessment and new data profiles can cut a teacher's workload not increase it.

What they were also agreed upon, though, was that they would like education policy-making to be evidence-based, too.

There are signs of a growing commitment to it. Apparently, one of the latest converts is the former education secretary Michael Gove.

Asked at the Global Education and Skills Form in Dubai a fortnight ago where he stood on prime minister Theresa May's grammar school proposals, he gave a cautious welcome to the idea of more selection – a change of heart from his earlier stance while he was actually running the education system. 

However, he delivered a cryptic message that he hoped she would study all the evidence before going ahead with the proposals. (The evidence, as we know, is stacked against them.)

Would that that conversion had happened earlier in his career.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and before that news editor of Tes. He has been writing about education for more than three decades. 

To read more columns by Richard, view his back catalogue

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