Whizzy data signifying nothing

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Targeting and tracking top the list of educational words I can't abide. Conversely, consultants and other so-called experts love them. They can visit your school, pore over your data, make assumptions about your children's progress (often wildly inaccurate) and never need to go near a child.

The blame lies with using technology for its own sake. ICT is rapidly changing the face of education, often in ways I support. When my teachers design lessons involving the electronic whiteboard, they use a variety of media - all immediately available via the classroom internet, DVDs, audio files and other clever ancillaries.

The downside, for me at least, is the use of computers for educational number crunching. Simply because modern computers can cope with it, schools are required to feed them huge amounts of data.

We tell the computer the children's ages, their country of origin, the results of our constant assessments of them, their attendance patterns - everything except their shoe sizes, although it wouldn't surprise me if we're asked to put those in before long.

Then we push a button and the computer juggles all this information, supposedly telling us what levels the child should achieve each year, how he compares with others the same age, where his strengths and weaknesses lie, even what "targets" we should set.

People such as school improvement partners and Ofsted love targets. They can check them and rap schools over the knuckles if they're not achieved. But computers tell schools... everything the good ones probably already know.

Yesterday, I spoke to an extremely competent infant teacher. Her school uses one of the highly sophisticated commercial packages for tracking and targeting. Her head, apparently, rarely speaks to a child or visits a classroom, but pop into his room and ask him about achievement and he'll bore you rigid with computer screens and wallcharts full of information purporting to show his children are securely "on track".

The teacher has a different view. "Every teacher here spends a couple of hours, every week, typing masses of information into the computer. In reality, much of it is unreliable, because we're dealing with unpredictable little human beings," she said.

"Then the computer prints out lots of pretty lines, graphs and pie charts to tell me where my children are at. It pleases the head. Senior management spend hours analysing it. But I simply don't need it, and nor do the other teachers. We already know exactly what our children can and can't do."

And that, surely, is the point. Any half-decent teacher worth her salt will know her children thoroughly. At the start of the year she'll already have talked at length to the teachers who've taught the class for the last couple of years.

She'll have looked in detail at their work. She'll know the saint and the sinners. She'll know who has special needs and who has a particular talent that needs nurturing.

In my school, we have a deliberate policy of not having more than 23 children in each class, so acquiring an intimate knowledge of every child's ability isn't really very difficult.

Whitehall leans on local authorities for data and the local authorities pressure their schools. My school, courtesy of an able but questioning data co-ordinator, churns out the absolute minimum required in the most expedient form.

But he and I agree that, really, we could chuck the whole lot in the bin... and it wouldn't make a scrap of difference to our school.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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