From the Editor - Your number's up if you don't embrace the data

7th June 2013 at 01:00

A principal I know was once attending a very worthy conference. Insufficiently captivated by the discussion, he glanced up at a television that was silently relaying that evening's Crimewatch. Mugshots of four teenagers wanted for robbery appeared on the screen. All four were his students. His first reaction? "Oh, thank God. They've sat their GCSEs."

The pressures on schools to make sure that they bank the best possible exam results are now so intense that students are often thought of as statistics first and people second. When the stakes are so high, the temptation to obsess about targets and neglect nurturing isn't surprising. Humanity has to intrude to reset the balance.

It isn't hard to find teachers who are outraged by the relentless dictates of data. Children are more than grades, they protest; schools are more than exam factories. Nor are these fears new. In 1926, TES reported on an innovation from the US, "education by slide rule". Schools there, we explained, were using detailed test data to track students' performance and to "show whether the teachers are keeping the boys and girls up to the same standard".

Although the benefits were manifest, we weren't totally convinced by this "measurement movement". "The non-measurable criteria of education are ignored," we worried. "The emotional and spiritual values cannot find a place."

In the intervening decades, doubts about our school systems testing the obvious and neglecting the valuable have, if anything, intensified. And as the audit culture has expanded, new worries have surfaced. Are the data reliable? Have they been so crudely applied that they mislead more than they illuminate?

League tables that do not account for progression or context, for instance, will inevitably reward the effortlessly successful and penalise disadvantaged strivers. Teachers assessed on a narrow range of measures in a short space of time are liable to be misjudged.

These are legitimate concerns. Measurement should be refined. But without data, teachers and schools are blind. They cannot compare themselves with their neighbours or their own expectations; they cannot put any child's progress in context; they cannot use objective results to bury a poor reputation; they cannot, with conviction, explain to parents and governments where they are and how they and their students are doing. Without data, school and student improvement is virtually impossible.

Poor results are simply that. There may be good reasons why they are bad but to dress them up as an indication of unmeasurable virtue, as some do, is specious. Good schools deliver both a rounded education and impressive results.

So, by all means, rail against the crudity of tests and the warped consequences of data obsession. Protest in the strongest possible terms that a student is more than a grade, a school more than a number in a ranking. But let's not kid ourselves. Data may not be sufficient but they are essential. A school that is allergic to data is a school that shuns the sunlight. A school that excuses poor results as expressions of a real, ineffable education is fooling itself. And there is no earthly reason why it should fool anyone else.

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