Let the Data Monster's belly rumble and start catering to children's needs

30th January 2009 at 00:00

The Assembly government is data voracious. All public servants know the curse of paperwork. Except it isn't paper any more, it's an online management system - or what I prefer to call the Feeding Tube. I think of it as a big yellow chute that travels from my office, over fields and hills, running in parallel to the A470, gurgling past Merthyr and Pontypridd, then into the metropolis, whizzing towards Cardiff Bay and into the gullet of the Data Monster.

The Monster's stomach must make some horribly distracting noises when it gets hungry because the government is always trying to find new things for us to feed it. I imagine them, feet up, listening to their iPods, or flicking through an Ikea catalogue trying to decide which sofa to buy next with their expense account, and getting on the phone to the Data Monster Keeper's Office instructing them to feed the thing.

I spent the first two days of last term with teachers from my cluster of schools, obeying a command to cobble together some new food for the Data Monster on moderation. Hours were sucked away deciding whether a piece of writing used "imaginative word choices" or whether a child was awake when they wrote their maths investigation.

I have an idea. Instead of wasting days trying to agree what the "level descriptions" mean, all pupils - or perhaps only those at the end of each key stage - should sit an externally marked test. Job done.

Those up high wish us to reinvent the wheel, the bicycle, not to mention the moped. We are supposed to agree what the level descriptors mean, even though most of us have done it all before a hundred times. What infuriates me is what we could be doing with this time. I know the point is to ensure the validity of value added, but I don't give a brussel sprout for that. All I'm interested in is helping pupils to progress, not finding out where they are or were.

What annoys me about the Data Monster is that it covers up the fact that the education system is more geared towards assessing children than challenging them. I attend endless meetings concerned with measuring pupils' performance, but few where teachers are encouraged to think of new ways of inspiring children.

Compare this with my own adult learning experience. At 35, I decided to take up the Irish fiddle. I found a brilliant teacher - Mike Lease, whom those immersed in the folk scene may know. He is an astonishing musician. For the first two minutes, he asked me to play something. I couldn't, of course, but in that time he determined where I was. That was his assessment done. From then on he just threw stuff at me - difficult stuff. I always felt a little out of my depth, but I liked it that way. I learnt to play, not as well as him - of course, not - but good enough for me.

Mike Lease spent just two minutes assessing me. Because he knew his subject and had seen many others like me, he could tell exactly where I was. But in schools we are doing the reverse, just to keep the Monster Keepers in jobs.

I know it's important we pass on reasonably accurate descriptions of where pupils are, but good teachers make their own judgments, judgments that are about moving pupils on, not feeding the Monster.

At the end of last term, a very nice woman knocked on my office door and introduced herself as the co-ordinater of a pilot project to measure primary pupils' heights. The Data Monster must have been making a lot of horrible noises that week. I asked her why the data was needed, and she laughed. Honestly, laughed. "I don't know," she said, "but other EC countries are collecting it, so Wales needs it too."

Are pupils in Wales heavier, lighter, taller or shorter than pupils in France or Belgium? Why does the Assembly need to know this? I presume it's in the interests of children's health. But if the health of children - and not the Data Monster - is their priority, they should listen to what teachers have been trying to tell them for the past year: fewer children are eating school meals and more are bringing their own packed lunches, consisting mainly of assorted sweets, biscuits and junk. I worry about their weight, their long-term health, and their ability to concentrate.

And if their teeth begin to rot, the government will need to worry a lot more because there are no dentists in Wales. Well, there weren't last year when my son needed treatment. I had to pay Pounds 3,000. The government knows; I've told them.

I could tell the Assembly what they need to know in two minutes, and so could you. But then we wouldn't need the Data Monster or half the bureaucrats who populate the Assembly buildings in Cardiff, or the expensive new Aberystwyth office.

If the government bothered to listen to teachers for just 10 seconds, it would learn more than it does from all the data. Then, like my brilliant fiddle teacher, it could help us move on. But if they really listened, the Monster - poor thing - would shrivel up and die. And then what would all the Keepers do - sell their iPods on eBay, and go out and look for a job?

Andrew Strong, Head of Llanbister Primary, Powys.

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