'You can't reduce a child to a spreadsheet number'

The story that data tells us is not the full story that teachers see in the classroom, says Aidan Severs

Once upon a time there was a spreadsheet and on that spreadsheet there was lots of interesting pupil data.

Very helpfully, the spreadsheet had made some calculations so as to inform the teacher of how well the children were doing with their learning. The spreadsheet told of how many pupils had: made expected progress, achieved age-related expectations, achieved accelerated progress and who were sadly working below the expected standard as a result of making slow progress.

"Thank you, spreadsheet – that is very useful," said the busy teacher.

"But that's not all I have, teacher." replied the spreadsheet. "I can also provide for you this very day some group data."

"Indeed?" asked the teacher. "Do show me more of what you have to offer."

Data stories

So the spreadsheet told the teacher of how many girls were working below in maths (it's always the girls in maths, isn't it?) and how many boys were still behind in reading and writing (ah, those pesky boys and their literacy), and how many of the pupil-premium children (bless their cottons) had failed to make the necessary amount of progress.

It showed the teacher many wonders such as how a "group" of children with highly complex and individual needs were all making less progress this year than they did the year before.

But the teacher was clever, and wasn't to be fooled by the spreadsheet's simplistic tricks. The teacher knew that those six boys struggling with reading were all finding things difficult for quite different reasons. In fact, one boy's parents were going through a separation, and reading in the evening over the two separate households wasn't taking priority. Besides, he kept leaving his reading folder at the other's house.

Reasons to evaluate

Another of the boys was currently working with a learning mentor to improve his behaviour, and just then that was the priority. Of course, the hope with him was that he'd be reintroduced full time to class once his attitude had improved.

And then there was the boy who was always late because his dad struggled to get up after the night shift to bring him to school. The result of his tardiness? He always missed the reading lesson that was timetabled at the start of the day.

You see, the teacher knew there were different individual reasons why these six boys might not have made the desired amount of progress and not achieved the expectation.

It wasn't just the boys that the teacher knew about. No, the teacher also knew that one of the girls in the "group" of struggling mathematicians had a particular lack of confidence when it came to the subject, whereas one of the others was overly-confident, always rushing and making mistakes, especially in tests when she wanted to be the first to finish.

Not the full story

The teacher also realised that there were a couple of boys in the class who suffered from a lack of confidence with numbers (yes, boys!), and that there were another handful of boys who fell into the overly-confident category.

This was information that the spreadsheet, no matter how wonderful, could never tell the teacher.

This was because, the teacher knew, the spreadsheet was a poor storyteller, despite its best intentions. It was very fine in its mathematical ability but that raw data wasn't really enough. The teacher was aware of the limitations of such information and was careful not to make decisions solely based on it.

Consequently, the teacher did not just create a reading intervention for boys with lots of "boy-friendly" books. And the teacher did not decide to make maths more relevant to girls by making it about princesses and make-up and other girl things.

Empowering teacher judgement

Instead, the teacher treated each one of those struggling children as individuals, tending to their needs based on their real stories - the stories that the teacher had learned by spending day after day with the children.

You too can be like the teacher. Don't allow the spreadsheet to suggest to you that just because all the boys are struggling that it's because they're boys that they are struggling. The spreadsheet can't tell you that. Look deeper, beyond the numbers, and find the reasons for the individual difficulties then base your interventions and teaching on those reasons.

And don't be blind to the fact that there may be children from another "group" who are actually struggling in the same way who would benefit from the same input as another of their classmates. Bring the stories to the spreadsheet and use your own wealth of knowledge when looking at pupil group data.

Aidan Severs is a deputy head at a primary school in the North of England

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