Data-watch does no one any favours

22nd January 2010 at 00:00

Of all the things that are wrong in education today, it is the obsession with data gathering that annoys me the most.

Why do schools collect so much of it? Not, I think, because most of it is any use to them. Headteachers collect it because they need to protect their schools against inspectors, school improvement partners (SIPs) and local authority officials who think that if you didn't predict Simon's slight slip back in mathematics during week two of the autumn term, you're an idiot and you shouldn't be in charge of a school.

Chatting to my SIP on her last visit, I said that I could happily gather together all the tracking data on our children, all the graphs and diagrams and percentages, all the numbers and tick-boxes and charts, and dump the lot in the recycling bin. And it wouldn't make a scrap of difference to our school. The children would still thrive and achieve. In fact, they'd probably achieve even more, because their teachers would have even more time for them. My SIP smiled, but I don't think she agreed, so here's my argument in a nutshell ...

Firstly, the teaching staff are the key factor in a school's success. We don't have vacancies very often, but I take enormous care over appointments. I want lively, interesting people who thoroughly enjoy being with children, who understand and appreciate their humour, who relate well to each other and who can create exciting, stimulating classrooms. I'm not interested in reading references or long application forms that tell me "every child matters". I've known that ever since I started teaching.

After spending an hour taking prospective teachers round the school and chatting to them, I'll know whether I'm likely to want them on my staff. The interviews for short-listed candidates are informal, interesting and humorous and the right person will be bubbling over with enthusiasm for what he or she can bring to the school.

Secondly, we keep our classes small. All have less than 25 pupils. Since I don't ask my teachers to fill in reams of forms, plan in unnecessary depth, attend meetings every five minutes, or spend hours tracking everything, the children in their classes get a great deal of individual attention. This means children progress quickly, happily and well, and our Sats results are consistently high. The teachers then show their appreciation of this freedom, by working exceptionally hard.

Thirdly, we spend money carefully. A school near me has a bursar and three administrative officers, one of whom has sole responsibility for collecting dinner money tins and collating registers. I just have Sandra, who's a gentle, thoroughly capable, unflappable gem, and an accountant who pops in once a month to do budget reconciliations. My office is small, uncomfortably furnished without a pot plant in sight, and usually full of children showing me work they're proud of. The money we save goes straight back to the children. It is one of the reasons we have a 40-piece school orchestra.

And finally, there's always a huge amount going on. Whether it's the opportunity to play in a jazz group, or act in the summer musical, or write a poem for poetry week, or produce an animated film, become a gymnast, or join the many activity clubs, there's something to make every child want to get out of bed and come to school. Quality learning follows naturally.

I recently saw a sentence in an Ofsted report which said "Teachers aren't making use of assessment data to match work to pupils' needs". Frankly, this is management-speak nonsense. If Mrs Smith needs to pore over a pile of data before she can work out why Charlie can't handle subtraction, I'm not sure she should be teaching him.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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