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Don’t Throw the Baby Data Out with the Bath Water

Ofsted’s recent Road to Damascus moment that school’s internal data might not be the most reliable has a lovely irony associated with it; more so given their slightly odd proposals for work scrutiny.  Coming to a blog near you, very soon will be a school leader extolling the virtues of their data-free school.

As alluring as that might be I’d urge caution; Ofsted and schools have managed to swing the data pendulum to one extreme.  Learning the lessons of history; it’s key we don’t allow the data pendulum to swing to another extreme.  At the heart of the flawed approach to data were a number of misconceptions: the frequency with which attainment data should be collected for purposes of determining progress and the aggregation of data into an overall grade or level, which could be entered into spreadsheet or database.  Another and biggest one of all related to the reliability of the data and the certainty with which teachers and school leaders pronounced their judgments and consequentially acted.  This reliability~validity mismatch lead to poor cliff edged, high stakes decisions on data that was more suited to a “I wonder whether” hypothesis or “could I use this to tell me something about” conclusions.

In the hope Ofsted will stay well away from school’s internal data; we have time and space to think through our approach.  Here are a few rules of thumb – could loosely be called principles – to help guide your thinking and approach to data.  The absolute key is thinking about the purpose you want the data for; acknowledging its limitation in any situation and keeping as much of the data  as possible close to the critical interface between the teacher and pupil, where it is most useful and important.  Worth remembering that our first attempts in the post-levels World lead to lots of schools and teacher basically reinventing levels by another name.

Some Rules of Thumb

Prioritise assessment data that will help identify which aspects of their subject a teacher may teach well and which aspects could be prime candidates for further professional development.  Discuss this with each teacher.

Prioritise assessment data that will help you identify which aspects of the curriculum, already taught, have been learnt by pupils – in the moment and over time – and which aspects need remedial action.

Allow subjects flexibility in what data might be of greatest use to them; the most useful data differs from subject to subject and in subjects between different age groups.  Think of this as grain size or granular data specifically linked to what is being taught at the time (worth noting; learning tends to progress from small grain surface learning to larger grain ideas/concept learning) and what pupils are expected to learn.

Consider whether there is a need to record the data or whether it is best left unrecorded or to individual teachers, departments or phases to record in a way that meets their need.

Recording data doesn’t make it suddenly more reliable or trustworthy or that progress will improve; progress needs to be judged for pupils in your school against a national (or large representative) cohort.  How’s best to do this; you soon realise trying to do this once or twice a year is a massive ask?

Prioritise attendance and behaviour data that you can act on in real time to address concerns or recognise improvements/deteriorations.

Graphic by Stan Dupp from Liminal Leadership

We’ve copied some real nonsense from each other and consumed pints of snake-oil from dodgy salespeople over the years.  We need to develop a greater conceptual understanding of what and how data can benefit a child’s education.  Once we’ve really thought it through, only then, can we make an informed decision on whether a product or system already available will help us; alternatively, we might need to develop something bespoke built on sound principles.

It’s the baby data; the smaller, non-aggregated sometimes ephemeral stuff that makes the most difference.  Just because some data is written down it doesn’t mean we can trust it; we need to place greater trust in the people who are generating it, alongside further developing their understanding and practice.



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