Have you ever wondered how well you did at school? I’m sure you know what qualifications and grades you got, but did you get what you should have? I went to school over 30 years ago and my experience was uneven, with teaching ranging from shockingly bad to inspiringly good. There were no targets, no identified subgroups, no levels of progress and more importantly no supportive talks to help me see how I might have done better…
I sat my 11-plus in Eastbourne in 1976 – or rather I failed my 11-plus. I’d like to blame the unbearable searing heat of that infamous hot summer for this but alas I can’t. English comprehension was my downfall. There were two assemblies after the results came in: one for those going to the grammar school and one for those of us marked down for the secondary modern. Even at the tender age of 10 we understood the educational segregation that was going on, and referred to one lot as the ‘thickies’ and to the others as the ‘brainies’. The top 25% of the year attended the former assembly. The top 25%? Do I detect a bit of norm referencing going on here? Surely not?
I guess this was the first and only piece of data gathered on me until I sat my ‘O’ levels five years later. And, as with my ‘O’ level grades, the trauma of falling at the 11-plus hurdle stayed with me. The secondary modern wasn’t much good – my sister was already there and testified to this. Expectations there were nearly as low as their CSE results (note, no ‘O’ level results. Pupils here weren’t expected to reach those dizzy heights). Luckily I never found out how I would fare at the bottom of the tripartite system, for within weeks my family moved to Hampshire, where the 11-plus had died a timely death. So I went to a comprehensive school, with the full range of abilities – a range of abilities that applied to teachers as well as pupils.
So why am I telling you this? Because the 11-plus was the only measure of my ability ever applied during my schooldays. Of course I’ve felt a failure ever since and the fact I had to attend the ‘thickies’ assembly stayed with me. I came away with a handful of ‘O’ levels and CSEs but don’t know if I could have done better. I don’t think my teachers knew if I could have done better or indeed if many of them cared, to be honest.
So I now find myself on the other side of the fence – looking at data in a leadership team, and thoroughly enjoying it. I’m constantly analysing numbers, looking at FFT estimates, drawing conclusions from RAISEonline, comparing school performance tables or collating intervention groups with SISRA Analytics – a mind-blowing data tool. When I initially took on the role I felt intimidated by the wealth of data available. I didn’t fully understand all that was presented to me and was worried when the same variable from different sources didn’t match. But I soon found I had an advantage, as although I like data I’m not a natural statistician. I remember listening to previous data managers blinding us with numbers when all I was concerned about was preparing for my next class. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. So I have to work hard to get my head round it all, and I try not to put others off with the great wealth of data we now have.
But how valuable really is data in school? For, as the saying goes, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.
We are target driven (not just in education), and we need data to set targets. But any target creates a ceiling, so we have to keep reviewing it so it doesn’t hold pupils back rather than stretching them. Data enables us to measure progress, but again with health warnings. Is it fair to measure a pupil’s progress in Art or Music, for example, based on KS2 test scores in English and Maths? Statisticians will, no doubt, show us correlations between the two, but even so, does that feel right to you?
To answer my own question, yes, using data is valuable if it raises achievement. It has to be used sensitively, with a focus on helping teachers understand their pupils’ abilities so as to work with the right aspirations. Teachers should understand data and to some extent draw their own conclusions from it. These numbers, however, should run alongside their world, not dominate or threaten it. So filtering is crucial. Teachers should be teaching. That’s what they do best. They need time to plan and, crucially, to build relationships with pupils. Although difficult to measure, running an after-school club or watching pupils’ play football in the semi-finals of County Cup is much more important than ploughing through the latest data on pupils not doing as well as they might.
I analyse data as well as teaching a relatively full timetable. So though sometimes I’m not sure if I’m coming or going, being at the chalk face still enables me to see pupils as faces rather than digits. I speak to department leaders about pupils we need to ‘convert’ and how, in terms of performance tables, some are more important than others – and this can feel uncomfortable. I’ve instigated a whole-school seating plan allowing teachers to map data and subgroups on their classroom layouts. But behind these numbers are pupils like I was, at risk of feeling second-class due to attending the ‘thickies’ assembly. And behind the acronyms – PP, LAC, EAL, G&T, SEN, etc. – are children with personalities, learning to use iPhone apps faster than we ever will, or discussing Saints matches with more sense of strategy than Ronald Koeman.
So in my data presentations over the past year I’ve tried to include plenty of photos of pupils as a reminder of what the point is.
I’m still not sure how well I did at school. D&T is my subject and I love teaching it with an unbridled passion. I wonder what my D&T performance would look like if I were at school now, as would be measured through the prism of my dodgy English at age 11. But I do know that if a teacher had bothered to have a conversation with me about my progress and given me some pointers on how well I was doing and what I should aim for, I’d have stepped up a gear.
So as data managers we need to cherry-pick the things that make a difference, and we’ve become good at ‘weighing the pig’. We take more measurements than ever before. But we must pick the right datasets, stick with them and act on them – so as to also ‘fatten the pig’. And if the pig doesn’t put on weight, we must learn from the experience, as we encourage pupils to do.
Neil Waite Dec ‘14
A special thanks to Ellie, my daughter, for drawing my pig.