Why data matters

26th March 2004 at 00:00
In a recent Office for Standards in Education inspection, a pupil said he'd put the inspector right about target-setting. "I told him my target was to be possible," he announced. I groaned. "I'm going to be possible, sir, because my tutor is always saying, 'Wayne, you're impossible'."

According to the National Foundation for Educational Research, there has been a revolution" in the way schools and local education authorities use data. Yet it influences teachers' planning in only half of primaries, according to this year's Chief Inspector's report. Data analysis in secondaries is unsatisfactory where identifying underachievers is concerned. Teachers feel they have insufficient time to look at data.

Statutory tests are often regarded as narrow, with low status given to teacher assessments.

But data matters because it informs planning, creates understanding for pupils and parents, and improves performance. Teachers should use data to liberate children.

Successful schools are using it to make a difference during key stage assessments.

On entry to nursery, schools effectively compile an initial child profile with parents. Termly social and academic targets are provided verbally and in writing.

By key stage 4, performance reviews will remind pupils and parents of previous core subject attainment. GCSE potential will be stated based on cognitive ability test scores, value-added data, professional judgments and challenges. Crucially, this will be compared to current standards to highlight underperformance.

Now is the time to take the best practice features from schools that have pushed the boundaries. We need a standard approach to defining grades, distinguishing the levels between strands and recognising the incremental steps between national curriculum levels. A national, unified assessment system from three to 19, based on informed professionalism, would release teacher energy. It would be used by the entire profession in all schools throughout all phases. Performance and potential would be monitored throughout the child's life in school.

Schools minister David Miliband's proposed national pupil database provides for what he calls "a single conversation" about data and performance.

Perhaps Wayne's target to "be possible" is prophetic after all.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon, and national co-ordinator of NCSL's leadership network

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