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‘We must never forget that pupils are not data and teachers are not data managers’

Kevin Rooney is a politics teacher and head of social science at Queens’ School, Bushey, Hertfordshire, writes:

Alps, Alice, Panda, Lat Tracker, Raise on-Line and Fisher Family Trust ‘D’.  Welcome to education 2014-style. Fans of these acronyms will tell you that they represent progress – allowing teachers to exploit the data revolution to achieve new levels of accountability in education. The acronyms are basically new ways of measuring educational achievement. They allow government to audit the performance of schools, school management to audit departments, and heads of department to hold individual teachers to account.  All of this it is hoped will deliver the holy grail: better education for our children. 

But will it?

Much of the data gathered comes from exams, and the data revolution in schools has seen exam grades become as much about the performance of the teacher and school as they are about the student.  While every summer the media features the smiling faces of pupils proudly clutching their A grades, what it does not show is the anxious faces of teachers and heads who will know that their performance is being assessed and monitored. In the staffroom, teachers now obsess over predicted, target and calculated grades. Where once exams were a test of how much a student knows about the subject, the data revolution means exams are now primarily a measure of the achievements of teachers and schools. If schools get great grades, they can attract the cream of the crop of students the following year and get the much sought-after Ofsted seal of approval. For supporters of the audit culture, these new drivers create a virtuous circle where exam results and education improve as a result of a greater sense of accountability

But I see something completely different. For me, the current obsession with data and exam performance is undermining education rather than enhancing it. It is narrowing the educational and intellectual experience of young people and moving schools away from the mission that inspired me into teaching – that of transmitting a body of knowledge.

The phrase "taught to the test" has never been truer than it is today and that fact should worry everyone who cares about education. Teachers, under pressure to deliver grades, focus on teaching what is likely to come up in the exam, rather than looking at the broader subject area. No longer are teachers encouraged to see their legacy as inspiring students into a lifetime love of a subject. They are now encouraged to get their students through exams to boost the statistics on which their school will ultimately be judged. In this brave new world, the curriculum is defined by what pupils will be tested on; if it is not going to come up in the exam, it is not worth teaching.

I do wonder how a modern History Boys or Dead Poet’s Society might look? If they were based on reality, filmmakers would show teachers sitting in front of computers looking at a bewildering array of graphs and spreadsheets that we barely understand. It would show that our own passion for the subject is being sucked out of us as we become bean counters obsessed with league tables. Perhaps they could tell the tragic tale of teachers like me who try so hard to resist, but who still feel obligated to play the game. It would probably more closely resemble a Hollywood-style dystopian horror movie: schools packed with robot administrators, which treat all students as numbers to be added to a spreadsheet.

The computer says the exam is everything. The government says so, education authorities say so, the headteacher says so and, not surprisingly, this becomes received wisdom and part of the culture of schools. While I don’t doubt the good motives of the educationalists introducing these changes, I am in no doubt that this is bad for children and for education. Transforming teachers into professional data managers is shortchanging our children and denying them the broad, rounded, knowledge-based education they are entitled to.

I have always defended exams against their critics and insisted that schools are right to demand a lot from our students and put them under pressure. But those of us who came into this profession to inspire a love of subject and a love of learning have to take a stand now. We have to call for exams to be scrapped and demand that we be allowed the freedom to teach a subject, rather than teaching to the test. We need to put our students back at the centre of education and remind ourselves that education has to be about students' life chances, not schools' performance indicators. Children are not data and teachers are not data managers. There is too much at stake to let ourselves forget that.

Kevin Rooney is chairing the discussion “Data overload: what is the point of exams?” at the Battle of Ideas. TES is media partner for a number of education debates at the festival, taking place at London’s Barbican on 18-19 October


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