Data is not a bad thing, but the bad use of it is.

The report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group in November 2018 Making Data Work is an important reference point for school leaders in appraising how their school uses data, and for companies that develop and supply data tools for schools. The time associated with data collection and analysis was most frequently cited as “the most wasteful due to a lack of clarity amongst teachers as to its purpose” and that “this audit culture can lead to feelings of anxiety and burnout in staff”. But we also know that the effective use of IT systems can save time that would otherwise be lost in manually handling information. So where does the balance lie?

Using IT to reduce workload
The potential workload demands upon teachers are high in comparison to many other professions.  Their core function is teaching lessons, but there are many additional tasks needed to support this, including lesson preparation, marking pupils’ work, and working with the school’s systems and processes.  These tasks can be demanding of teachers’ time.  IT systems have good scope to offer help with streamlining these tasks – as long as they are well-designed and are used in an effective manner. The use of data in an effective way will be essential to support the judgments made by school leaders and teachers. We know this to be true because it is the case in other walks of life – like health, where diagnostics based on data supports every medical decision that will be made.

Some good examples of the effective use of IT can be seen in Multi Academy Trusts, many of which have centralised the planning of lessons, the preparation of teaching materials, and providing assessment methods which enable comparisons across groups of schools. Whole-Trust and whole-school approaches like this can reduce the workload burdens on individual teachers whilst getting additional value from the effective use of their data.
At school-level, IT systems can also help to systematise how information is used by making available resources which teachers can access across a school network and from home. They can help by collecting information from different departments, and software can be used to aggregate, analyse and report the progress pupils are making.

Striking a balance
Where things can go wrong will include the anxiety that can lead to the over-collection of tracking data. In this respect, the Ofsted framework states, “Leaders understand the limitations of assessment and do not use it in a way that creates unnecessary burdens for staff or learners.” The Ofsted framework also states that teachers and SLT need to know their schools and students well and in order to make sure they are striving for the best possible outcomes for these students. “Leaders take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or high needs, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

Terminal examinations are the main point at which standardised opportunities are provided to give an accurate summation of what pupils have attained by the end of a period of learning.  End-of-year examinations across subjects provides similar way-markers of the interim attainment of pupils. These provide the key reference points for judging progress and attainment, so data collection at these points will be significant for the purposes of summative assessment.

A focus on informing teaching and learning
On a day-to-day basis, the process of teaching and learning, including the use of questioning and tests, will provide a range of formative assessment information which will indicate how well a learner is understanding the content of each lesson. The main use of this information will be to guide the teacher in adapting the teaching to address any weaknesses, and ensure that pupils are making progress in assimilating the knowledge, concepts and understanding of the subject.  Monitoring how well pupils are learning will be part of the feedback loop which guides further teaching and assures that all pupils make the progress that they should.

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Improving reporting
The range of information which forms the teacher’s understanding of how well pupils are learning could be usefully summarised from time to time (for example, for a parent’s evening) in a way that answers the question: ‘How well is this pupil doing?”. It could be summarised by referring to what a pupil has learnt, how well they have learnt it, what they could do to improve their learning, and an indicator of a likely future grade based on the current progress that they are making. This is what happens verbally on a parent’s evening – so if this is the range of information which parents and pupils would most value, why do we only provide space in a report for a single grade or number? Traditional reporting doesn’t allow the space to do more than this, but IT systems should allow us to do a much better job of reporting than issuing a single judgmental symbol, which doesn’t really tell us very much.

This is the approach that we have taken with our ‘Curriculum-Driven Assessment’ (CDA) system for KS3. It is an approach which requires effective planning that builds progress into the Scheme of Work so that evidence of effective learning equates with evidence of making good progress. An IT system helps to manage the process by presenting the Units of the Scheme of Work, and providing an easy way to record how well pupils are mastering what they are taught – and then generating the analysis and reports. Without an IT system supporting this, it would not be easy to provide this level of functionality.

Supporting judgements with quantitative evidence
For school leaders, statements they make about school and subject effectiveness need to be supported by evidence, i.e. measures. Without measures there would only be description, as in “We are a good school”. This begs the question: “How do you know?” Information will need to be available to enable conclusions to be drawn about school effectiveness, and that information will be a result of interpreting data about the school.

There is much potential information available in a school to support the work of school leaders.  Effective leaders will be specialists in the pupils who come to their school. They will know about local issues, about boy’s attainment, the effect of ethnicity, whether the impact of the pandemic has been disproportionate, etc.

School leaders who have not examined the data that they are sitting on place themselves at risk because they may not have a full understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their school, where subjects might be underperforming, or where particular groups of pupils do less well because they go unnoticed. They may not know if their strategies and interventions are working to help close the achievement gap. Not knowing this information leads to a bigger question – how do they know their curriculum best meets the needs of their pupils?

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Good data analysis software will allow school and subject leaders to investigate the performance of subjects, of groups and of individual learners, and will highlight emerging issues before they become embedded. Such software provides essential professional tools to support teacher research into learning effectiveness and In-School Variation, and it will support conversations within departments that will help determine CPD choices.

Research and forecasting
The theme of ‘teachers as researchers’ is much promoted in modern approaches to CPD. Their use of measures will be fundamental to this approach. Only being descriptive does not make any case. Subject leaders will usually report predictions of the future attainment of pupils in their subject once per term, providing three agreed points in time each year when school leaders can look across subjects and teaching groups and form a view about how well the school community is doing. These termly grades can also be used for research purposes by subject leaders, who might be asked to report their analysis of how well the subject is doing compared to the subject nationally, and whether there are particular groups, e.g., boys/girls, high/low prior attainers, Summer Born etc. who might be performing differently to pupils as a whole. The pandemic has disrupted the learning of pupils, and the need to know how pupils have responded to what they have been taught becomes an important quality assurance issue in relation to Teacher-Assessed Grades.

Owning the school effectiveness story
The sensible collection of data at agreed points in time will be essential to support the smart, self-evaluating school. Such schools will know themselves better than an outside inspection team and will be able to explain what their own research tells them about pupil achievement, and how they have responded to the knowledge they have discovered through analysing their data. It is probably true to say that a school that doesn’t know what judgement will be made of their school by an inspection team probably isn’t going to be rated as Outstanding. Schools which are specialists in the pupils who come to them will be confident when it comes to evaluating school effectiveness.

Making good choices
From time to time we may come across arguments on social media and elsewhere which imply that because a school is collecting tracking data too frequently that data itself is a bad thing, and we should avoid it and the tools that support its use. Of course, the issue isn’t that data is a bad thing, it is the poorly-judged use of data that is at fault. Effective schools will know how important it is to use data sensibly to support teaching, learning and self-evaluation and to only collect data that will support them in these areas, and ensure that the IT products and services are selected and used to reduce teacher workload and increase school effectiveness.

Ultimately, the sensible use of data will reduce teacher-workload because interventions can then be targeted to those subjects or pupils who specifically need them. Good use of data can help schools respond to unforeseen challenges as they unfold, such as the pandemic, and support schools in improving the outcomes for young people.


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Mike Bostock is an educationalist specialising in the use of performance data tools for school improvement. Mike has worked as a science teacher, DfE IT in Schools Programme (MEP), LA school improvement adviser, inspector and with software development teams. Mike’s company, New Media Learning, produces the 4Matrix school performance system which is used in around 1,200 secondary schools. I am grateful to my colleagues, Ian and Karen, for the additional contributions to this particular article.


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