Skip to main content

What Macbeth can tell us about data use in schools

Beware predictions that are delivered with such confidence that they become self-fulfilling prophecies, writes one head of English

News article image

Beware predictions that are delivered with such confidence that they become self-fulfilling prophecies, writes one head of English

My Year 10 students have just reached the witches’ last data progress meeting with Macbeth, in Act 4, Scene 1. Macbeth has from the beginning done his best to act on the data provided in their prophecies. As with all predictive systems, the initial revelations were a bit shadowy, lacking in detail, so target-setting was rudimentary: “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” But he has worked with what he was given. And, as with all predictive systems, the data has become more clearly defined as time has progressed and more information generated.

It’s been an interesting monitoring period, of course, because it could be argued that some of the outcomes have been as much due to chance as to the direct actions of Macbeth and his murderous wife. The rapid escape of the two heirs to the Scottish throne made for a quicker ascent to power than expected, for example.

So, as we come to the end of the play and the data period, the prophecies have become much more detailed and informative – although still apparently leaving Macbeth’s fate in the balance. In reality, of course, the audience knows that Macbeth has been doomed from the beginning. And there is considerable debate about how far the witches’ prophecies were self-fulfilling.

For so long, I have believed the study of English literature to be poles apart from the modern world of performance management. But actually, Shakespeare was well ahead of the modern data doctor in his thinking. Who else could have shown so precisely the pitfalls of predictive data systems themselves and the journey towards the goal?

Toil and trouble

What education and this 17th century tragedy have in common is that often the users of the predictions are not party to the means by which the data generated is manipulated and the outcomes determined. Perhaps it’s my English background holding me back here, but the magic formula that is applied to the set of results from externally set and marked qualifications to produce predictions for each subject seems very remote.

And if the final result is so set in stone, why are schools working so hard to achieve it? In my more cynical moments, I wonder what the value is of a system that sets out predicted final grades with such finality that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Senior and departmental meetings are full of plans about the means to the ends of the statistical extrapolations. At the beginning, the first steps are always clear, but they are less well defined en route to the goal. That is surely the nature of the process and so contingencies have to be put in place.

In school systems the early data entries don’t always match the target grade – often they don’t get near it until close to the end. It should not be a cause for criticism, but an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of human nature and human endeavour. Intelligent managers know this.

Lady Macbeth: middle manager

Lady Macbeth would have been an excellent middle manager: she devises and sets out the plan with its contingencies so that she can deliver the vision. She coaches Macbeth meticulously in his actions. She reviews his targets periodically, as he emerges from the king’s chamber and when he is shaken by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost – she gives him a pep talk and completes the actions herself where necessary.

Of course, no analogy is a perfect fit to the system it purports to parallel. The means employed by the Macbeths, and the upheaval in the Scotland created by Shakespeare, are poles apart from today’s education system. But both are high-stakes environments distorted by the way in which predictive data is misused.

The tragedy for the education system is that there is not enough questioning about the desirability of the accountability system that increasingly narrows teaching and restricts professional opportunities for teachers' growth. The louder the predictive voice, the stronger the incentives to achieve the targets – and the more we lose our humanity in teaching. That is our tragedy!

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the South of England, and a member of the national association for the Teaching of English post-16 committee

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you