The problem with data

It is January and I’m up to my eyeballs in data and feeling a bit grumpy about it all.  Meetings are consumed with the analysis and woeful predictions about what might happen in the summer.  As usual, I think we are focusing on the wrong things.

Firstly, the reliability and validity of progress data in the first year of these linear courses needs to be questioned and used with caution, any general conclusions must come with massive caveats.   Indeed, in my own subjects we still feel in the dark about what the summer assessment might look like.  We have the specimen papers but the first AS papers were not necessarily similar to the sample papers.  We are desperately covering all possible bases with the content and getting students to transfer the skills to different contexts.  But, that is just good teaching, I hear you say (and I know it is but we all do a bit of ‘teaching to the test’, don’t we … okay, okay this deserves a future blog, I promise.)

Secondly, the mock data in the Autumn term is not necessarily a good proxy of performance over the whole specification.  Students only have partial knowledge of the subject and are not necessarily able to make the more sophisticated links they can at the end. For some students, it is only when they have completed the course that they are able to achieve the higher mark bands and the knowledge begins to link up.

Thirdly, student progress data is vulnerable to all sorts of teacher bias with the tendency for both type 1 or type 2 errors.  We tend to assume that students are either making more progress than they actually are or we suggest dramatic underperformance where things might not be as bad as it seems.  The consequences of these labels can be catastrophic for some student in terms of their motivation and subject confidence.

My view is that perhaps we are worrying too much about what this data says about departmental performance and school outcomes and not enough time thinking about individuals and their barriers to learning.  Our time may be better spent thinking about the individuals in our room and discussing some of the barriers they / we are facing in helping them make progress.  Spreadsheets are not good at telling the complex stories of the individuals in our rooms.

The anxiety about data is only useful if it results in a capacity to think about and contain individuals.  We all need to recognise that we are dealing with uncertainty and senior leaders will have to contain their own anxieties about not knowing and help contain the anxieties of those in classrooms and this means listening to the stories about individual and institutional barriers to learning.

Colleagues put away your spreadsheets, pop the kettle on and talk about the kids you are worried about.  Why are you worried about them?  What is stopping them making progress?  What would help? Can you have this conversation with them?  As Tom Sherrington famously recommends imagine …” there was no OfSTED, no SLT… just you and your class… what would you choose to do to make it great? Do that anyway.”  This is not to suggest we should not be accountable for our actions but that the tail should not wag the dog.  Part of me has been wondering that instead of providing loads of lunchtime and afterschool revision sessions, perhaps I should just hunker down and put all my effort into making my classes excellent.  Is my time better spent knowing my subject, keeping the pitch high and pace fast with some desirable difficulties along the way.  I should keep an eye on my top end and aim bring the others along with me.

As leaders in education we must decide whether we are going to be sh*t umbrellas or sh*t funnels. (Apologies, I cannot remember who I have stolen this from, I think it may have been Kev Bartle?).  For the latter, the data obsession is used to point fingers and ‘make’ staff accountable.  The anxiety is not contained and pushed down the hierarchy and I wonder where it goes next?  An alternative approach could be to acknowledge the uncertainty at the heart of the education project.  There are many variables which influence student progress and we need the capacities to reflect on them and most significantly the individual student must be at the heart of this enterprise.