Room for improvement

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Ignore statistical information at your peril. It is valuable evidence, says David Halliday

econdary schools have a plethora of statistical information relating to the attainment of their pupils. Despite this, in many schools it is speculation in preference to scrutinising and reflecting which is often the basis for where and how to make improvements. So why do we still spurn this valuable evidence?

The answer: significant structural failure using statistical information.

The squandering and misuse of these resources has left many schools floundering instead of using the information to reflect on performance and identify weaknesses and make improvements.

Statistical information appears at the start of the academic year. For the majority of schools, the numerical deluge is as welcome as the announcement that they are to be inspected by HMIE. For most teachers, reflecting on their statistics is not a positive experience; often it fails to assist them to focus their efforts and develop appropriate strategies to improve learning and teaching. Many ignore the information; others deny its value.

However, teachers are not the source of the structural failure. Many struggle to understand the information, especially those not comfortable dealing with numbers. This is unsurprising, as often any training received can only be described as pitiful.

But some senior management are also inadequately trained - indeed, some are grossly ignorant and inept - at understanding and interpreting this vital source of evidence about schools. Most are faculty heads, with the responsibility of nurturing their departments to assist them to become confident using the information and make it their own. Driving up the quality of learning is supposed to be the end result.

What often happens is less satisfactory; some faculty heads, conscious of their inadequacies, acquiesce with departments in not taking the statistics seriously. Alternatively, those with a modicum of understanding, but a failure to appreciate the limitations of statistics, sometimes blunder in unjustly castigating departments.

However, the structural failure does not end with the schools. When some local authorities are weighed in the balance, they are found wanting. It is axiomatic that, when senior management fail to address persistent problems, the authority intervenes.

How then do we explain departments, or schools, that have negative statistical results year in, year out, indicating serious problems, without action being taken? Is this reticence by local authorities to intervene because they are ambivalent as to when to venture into the headteacher's kingdom?

Interestingly, authorities are becoming more proactive. Perhaps the stimulus of inspection has contributed to a more rigorous approach.

Whatever the reason, their greater involvement is welcome: with one caveat.

Their greatest contribution should be to ensure that everyone is well-trained in interpreting and appreciating the significance of statistical information.

They must focus on tackling the root problem - the structural failure.

Parachuting in a team to interrogate the principal teachers of "failing departments" because the senior management have failed to solve problems, may be perceived as inquisitional and is unlikely to lead to sustained improvement. It is likely to leave behind a confused, dispirited department.

Using statistics to understand if our attempts to raise attainment have been successful is complex and contentious. Analysing statistical information is fundamental, even if it is only part of improving the life chances for young Scots.

Jack McConnell recently stated that his ambition is to have "the best education system in the world by 2020". To make this credible and not delusional, we urgently need to address structural failure in the way we too often ignore and misuse statistical information.

Unless we do, more children are destined to underachieve, as we continue to fumble in our pre-Newtonian educational world, devoid of light.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High

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