Data means nothing compared to teacher expertise

6th July 2018 at 00:00
With results day looming, it’s important to keep some perspective – number-crunching your pupils’ data won’t tell you anything meaningful, writes Michael Tidd

There’s something wonderful about June in primary schools. The weather turns fine, we can get out and about a bit more, Sats are over, and, aside from the phonics check and – potentially – writing moderation, it seems like we can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. As people find out arrangements for the year ahead, we can start to plan for September.

Meetings in new teams, opportunities for new topics, and the mix of sports days, cycling proficiency and school productions start to make the place come alive in a way that’s different to the rest of the year.

Then July comes around, and although we’re closer to the end, the dot that has long been on the horizon looms heavily into view: results day. This year, the Department for Education has tried to allow heads and their teams a bit of a rest by publishing the results at 7.30am rather than at midnight.

Personally, I quite liked the opportunity to get the headlines and then a chance to take a fresh look in the morning. But I can see that not everyone agrees. Maybe it’s better to have an unsettled night worrying about what might be, rather than a night dealing with the dread of reality.

Sats results 'shouldn't mean surprises'

That said, the surprises should be few and small. We’ll have had our eye on children for weeks – maybe months or years – who will be hovering around the borderlines, and so it shouldn’t be any surprise to see some fall on the right side of the all-important thresholds, while others sadly fall short. It’s inevitable that we’ll miss some of the goals we set for ourselves.

It’s important to remember that context when faced with the cold black digits on the screen. One child scoring 99 is no more a failure on our part than it is on theirs. Primary schools, in particular, are vulnerable to these small numbers and tiny groups when it comes to headline data, but we need to keep it in check.

The temptation is to cut the data in a thousand different ways to try to draw out key messages. Did boys score better than girls on the maths tests? Were disadvantaged pupils weaker on the arithmetic paper? The chances are the answer is simple: life’s like that sometimes.

Yes, maybe your four white boys did make more progress than the national average – but does that mean something significant? You might find just as good a progress measure for your left-handers. Or those who live at even house numbers. Talking about four children among a national cohort of hundreds of thousands, it’s nonsense to imagine its meaningful.

What’s more, we don’t need to group the data. We know the individual data points. It’s helpful to talk about proportions at a national level, because among 600,000 children, trends might mean something. At a school level, it’s much more useful to ask why Alfie, Jordan and Charlie did so well this year, or why Kate and Emma might have struggled. We have a wealth of information about our pupils, our teaching and our curriculum that can help us to identify how to improve. The numbers and graphs are nothing compared to that expertise.

Michael Tidd is head at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex

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