Hunger for data is consuming our ideals

30th January 2015 at 00:00

At a recent prizegiving ceremony, a headteacher began her state-of-the-school address by asserting that education was much more than exam results. She then spent several long minutes detailing all the improvements to the school’s exam performance. It was a presentation packed full of percentages, distributions and averages, which few could comprehend.

Terms and ideas such as “numerical indicators”, “data-driven evidence” and “number targets” are deeply unloved by many teachers. Learning is a human endeavour, we argue, not a numbers-driven business.

Introducing national testing in Scotland will mean even more data to baffle us. “How do you know how well you’re doing unless you measure it?” That is the premise for this latest initiative to raise educational standards.

Certainly, every service requires reliable benchmarks to demonstrate that performance is satisfactory and that standards are being maintained, if not improved. But we don’t need to spend scarce funds on complicated “number analytics”, which produce mountains of data telling us something that we already know: that the exam performance of pupils living in poorer areas isn’t as impressive as that of pupils in affluent areas.

We can, if we wish, compare exam performance in two schools in equally poor areas. But why? To brand a school as failing and make life more difficult for teachers (who already have the most demanding jobs in education)?

It is the same argument that we have in the classroom: do we really need to inform pupil A, trying their best in difficult circumstances, that they are way behind pupil B, who has numerous advantages, including a private tutor? Telling a disadvantaged pupil that they scored 17 per cent in a maths test is, in my experience, unlikely to lead to improved effort and performance.

The idea of measuring, publishing and comparing the raw test scores of poorer pupils – struggling with the effects of deprivation – with those of affluent pupils, is one of the silliest in education. In England, the overemphasis on testing has resulted in most schools being judged on the basis of test results. Values and attitudes, which are equally important but can’t be quantified, receive less attention and, therefore, are devalued.

The saddest news story of recent times makes the point: the number of refugees fleeing war-torn countries can, just about, be counted, but statistics are unable to indicate the extent of their suffering.

Then there is the question of how far numbers can be relied upon: whether it is a leading supermarket getting its accounts vastly wrong or a global car manufacturer cheating to achieve impressive emissions numbers.

Data can become addictive, distortive and anti-humanistic. The much-respected headteacher giving the detailed statistical analysis at the prizegiving ceremony is a prime example of how number-crunching can take over and consume the very ideals that you are working for.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland

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