Being able to influence people is arguably the ultimate leadership behaviour. You can’t be a leader if you don’t influence others; how long you stay a leader may well depend on the methods you use. The use of data in schools can be a bludgeoning experience or an enlightening one. If the purpose of data focuses on accountability it tends to be the former and as it tends towards learning the later.
Who gathers the data and for what purpose matters; it matters most to our pupils that we get this right. Leaders gathering aggregated data (think whole or sub-divided grades/levels), no matter how well-meaning, creates a focus on the accountability model. Too much of the critical detail is lost in the aggregation process. Teachers gathering data, at a grain size appropriate to the subject and the age of the pupil, realises the greatest potential for a focus on teaching and learning.
The more removed you become from the class room the more indirect your influence is. My influence these days is from afar; through building right culture, policy, professional development of others and working in the shadows where a thousand small conversations, influencing through what you say and how you say it, take place. Leadership more often than not makes you look stupid than profound. Of all the things I’ve lead the implementation of, please note the hard work has been and continues to be done by middle leaders and teachers across the Trust’s academies, our approach to life after levels might turn out to be one of my finer moments.
Not everything is rosy in the garden mind; nine months in that shouldn’t be a surprise, teething problems are inevitable and still exist, though they remain a worry. People sometimes say to me, “Don’t worry, Stephen, it’ll be fine.” Whilst often it is, “worrying” appears in the first line of the mental schema of my job description. It goes with the territory; the key is to worry about things you can actually influence and then focus on the ones which, if addressed, will have greatest impact. These are some of the challenges we still face.
Senior leaders are walking around with data withdrawal symptoms at the moment. We don’t start collecting current GCSE grade data until the end of Y10 and only twice in Year 11, November and March are full mocks for these year groups; similarly in the Sixth Form. Whole level or grade data entry every six weeks is beginning to fade into the distant past. Senior leaders love getting a target group together, planning interventions, running around in a semi-demented way. There is something strangely calming in this frenetic activity aimed at Y2, Y6, Y11 and Y13 at this time of the year. Don’t worry about whether it is having an impact, look how busy we are seems to be is the meta narrative. When I suggested to a head of department last November that they were doing such great work in the class room that maybe they didn’t need all the extra intervention outside, they pleaded to be allowed to do it for just one more year. It’s an odd world we exist in.
This is a hold your nerve moment and refocus leadership moment. Whole school data collection gives the pretence of everything being well; a lack is oddly unnerving. Senior leaders won’t always have the subject knowledge to engage in the deeper and wider debates about how to rewrite schemes of learning but they can quality assure processes. Are the data meetings occurring and how do you know is a start? What impact is the meeting having is a more challenging question. Have the agreed follow up actions, by the teacher, occurred and what help do they need? What is working well; can this practice been more widely distributed across the school/Trust? There really is a lot to do when you think about it. Leadership that is more indirect happens as you move from midle to senior posts.
Workload associated with the implementation has also been an issue. At a time we are committed to reducing workload – not only as a key means of retaining staff (we can’t recruit our way out of the coming crisis) but because it is right and proper that we should – we’ve actually increased some aspects of working with data as well as taking a few away. Whilst staff across the Trust are very forgiving and hardworking, they’re “go the extra mile people” possibly the key reason it hasn’t arisen as a particular point of angst is that our approach to data – summed up as “find out what they don’t know and teach ‘em it” makes so much sense – is the implementation of the bleedin’ obvious. It is part of the warp and weft of class room life; teaching, assessment and learning as the interwoven primary focus. The recent review of our new approach revealed that there is a lot more we can do to get our school calendars and assessment processes better aligned and to make sure we don’t have too many subject meetings to discuss data and the implications for schemes of learning and re-teaching all at the same time. Dealing with data at a fine grain size has led to a lot more hassle for staff in terms of recording the specific pieces of information they need. The crucial appointment of a MIS Data & Project Manager, next half term, will help significantly but also the more gradual change process involving teachers experimenting with online learning platforms, which mark and analyse pupils learning and gaps in knowledge, will gather pace.
What possibly delights me most is the totally different way we are beginning to look at and develop the curriculum and associated schemes of learning. About twelve months ago I prepared a webinar for Optimus which became last year’s most viewed blog post, Life After Levels – An Assessment Revolution? Central to it was the idea, now a strap line I use when talking about our work on assessment, “Life after levels is primarily a curriculum issue not a data issue.” Our work continues and here are some great examples of the Primary Mathematics Curriculum, with integrated, pre-planned assessments, thanks to Heather and the teachers who worked on this. Planning Years 1-4 collaboratively really helps with continuity, progression and challenge.
Whilst we planned from the beginning to have assessment as part of the process of developing curriculum the way in which we are continuously challenging ourselves about the quality and appropriateness of what we are teaching holds great promise. After all life after levels is a curriculum issue.