Don't let data become a dangerous obsession

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Useful information can be mined from statistics and tables, but if you start seeing children merely as numbers, it's time to quit

When I first made the move into teaching, I was thoroughly excited about my career choice. Inspirational advertisements on television and reading materials from my university course had imbued me with a sense of great moral purpose about the wonderful profession that awaited me. But one thing that was not so evident was just how many hours of my working life would be spent poring over data.

The stuff is never-ending. Education is awash with data, from whole-school league tables through to every kind of statistic imaginable on the children in front of you. It is a strange reward for classroom teachers ambitious for promotion to end up spending less time in the classroom doing what they are good at and more time in an office examining statistics.

Nevertheless, I am not here to decry the use of data. Actually, truth be told, I find it quite interesting. It is intriguing to see how departments perform in comparison to each other, and to see how your school performs in comparison to others both locally and nationally.

As a teacher of sociology, I also find it fascinating to examine trends in the performance of students from different ethnic and social backgrounds, not to mention different genders. This is a keen focus of the current UK government, given its stated determination to raise the attainment of students from the poorest backgrounds. To this end, examining data to determine the effectiveness of extra funding is obviously a useful exercise, especially at the macro level.

However, it is at the school level that I start to get more than a little uneasy about how data is used. For a start, looking for trends in data in individual departments, let alone in individual classes, is of pretty limited use. The statistical significance of trends at this level is so generally so low that they are fairly unhelpful in understanding what is going on in the classroom. Even the most ardent positivist would question how much this data can really tell you. And to be fair, most school managers freely acknowledge this.

Never make assumptions

There is, however, a bigger problem that follows from this: over-reliance on data can lead us to be overly deterministic about the students we teach. Teachers looking at lists of students receiving free school meals can often make assumptions about those young people that may be wholly inaccurate. Just because a child is from a poor background that does not mean they need more support.

Such extra attention may even be interpreted as insulting, and in the worst cases could be actively harmful. Many students who are disabled, for example, would much rather get on with things and foster a sense of independence than have the support of an adult 247. Extra support where it is not wanted can actually cause a child to feel more self-conscious and singled out than if they were left to do their own thing.

An awareness of any issues is always good, which is where lots of statistics and information on the children you teach can be valuable. But the data should not be used to make assumptions. It is often the case that children facing serious difficulties in life - be they through disability, illness or poverty - are some of the most self-reliant and driven in the classroom. Data may be a starting point, but it is no substitute for good judgement about what is best for your students.

On top of this, an over-reliance on data can in some cases lead us to lose touch with the children we teach and see them simply as numbers. This is a particular danger for senior leaders, who by definition have less contact with students than classroom teachers. Sometimes, albeit rarely, people can seriously lose the plot. School leaders are under huge pressure to get results, and a bad inspection report or failure to show progress could mean the loss of their job and the jobs of their colleagues. As a result, today's leaders are spending more time with data and less time with children than ever before in order to meet these excessive expectations. So it should be no surprise that some lose perspective under this strain.

If you doubt this, let me leave you with two shocking but very real examples. I am aware of one secondary headteacher who lists the names of his staff in order of the quality of their results on a board in his office, which is visible from the corridor to all who pass.

Even worse than this, one primary headteacher was leading a meeting of her teaching team, going through the data for each student in a year group and questioning teachers as to why some hadn't made progress. She asked why one particular girl had failed to move up the requisite two sub-levels during the past six months and what was being done about it. The room fell into a shocked silence. Her deputy had to remind her that the girl in question had died earlier that year, and that she had attended the funeral.

Such examples, although thankfully rare, should remind us never to lose perspective, and never to see the staff we work with or the children we teach as numbers on a spreadsheet. In such cases, data is not the enemy, but an obsession with it can lead to a worrying loss of perspective. The day we start to experience this is the day we should quit.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England

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