Why this obsession with analysing data?

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove primary school in Camberwell, South London

At a recent governors' meeting, I had to talk about this year's PANDA.

Frankly, I've always found this to be a turgid document that I only ploughed through on command. But the new "streamlined" version (for some reason now called "Raise Online") was supposed to be shorter and easier to digest, so I downloaded it with fractionally more interest than usua* I only to find I didn't understand a bloody word.

Not that there are many words, actually. Just pages filled with graphs, arrows, dotted lines and mathematical signs. One page was covered with so many overlapping squares and crosses that it looked as if somebody had been playing battleships, given up, then trodden all over it. Instead of being easier, it was incomprehensible. I have no idea whether my school is going up, down, sideways or hovering, bewildered, in education limbo. At least the old-style document said things like, "Your school is above average in maths compared with similar schools." I can cope with that.

Even when I attended a training course, which was supposed to show you how to interpret these things, I was lost after five minutes. The bloke running the course used to be a headteacher, but I later discovered that he was so obsessive about data-crunching, pictograms and bar charts that he spent most of his week poring over a computer, and his staff hardly saw him. When he did emerge from his room, pupils wondered who he was, and his headship only lasted two years. The Department for Education and Skills knew a boffin when they saw one and he was offered a top job in their statistics department.

Why do we have this obsession with analysing data? I think the answer is simply "because we can". Computers are now so sophisticated that it is possible to cram millions of pieces of information into them. Schools are required to collect a staggering amount of data on everything it's possible to collect data on - Sats, pupils with special needs, ethnic origins, free meals, pupil movement, absence - and feed it to the DfES or the local authority. And what do they do with it? Number-crunch it and send it back in the form of indecipherable dots and lines purporting to show trends, which are doubtful to say the least. My data co-ordinator says there are 15 mistakes in our document.

Recently, I looked at a document that had been worked on by 40 people and was proudly sent to schools as a definitive method for getting pupil targeting and tracking procedures right - and pleasing Ofsted at the same time. It seems "outstanding practice" occurs when pupils can access their personal data on, say, literacy and make informed decisions about it, amending their own targets accordingly. My first thought was to wonder whether these 40 people ever had a childhood - because young children simply don't behave like that, and with these current obsessions we really are in danger of messing up a vital part of their lives.

A huge number of ex-pupils write fondly to our school website. Why? Because they enjoyed, and now miss, the richness and variety we offered in their primary years. The music, poetry, drama, art, the enthusiasm for writing that came from an inspired teacher who had long ago abandoned the literacy hour. Nobody has ever written "thank you for ensuring I met my personal targets".

Even Ofsted inspectors said we were a school with outstanding qualities and didn't spend all their time looking for graphs, targets and statistics - which, I suppose, means there's a glimmer of hope.

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