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Data can be a sensitive topic in schools. The word conjures up raw emotions: teachers may feel like they’re generating tons of it, yet never seeing the benefit in the classroom.
Leaders can lose hours to crunching numbers in complex spreadsheets, all to satisfy a group of governors or a multi academy trust central team.
And students may find the process of being tested regularly somewhat stressful.
It’s no wonder, then, that some school staff may start to question why they even need to care about data in the first place.
In theory, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that every school should have a management dashboard that brings together its key metrics in one place.
Surely this is something every leader of every organisation wants? And yet, in many schools, this remains an elusive goal.
In fairness, I rarely come across people with a blanket dislike of data. Instead, people talk to me about anxieties in four broad areas: workload, technology, complexity and reliability.
What follows are tips that will, I hope, persuade you that your school improvement strategy should have data at its heart.
Many teachers will tell you they lose their personal life (and sanity) in the process of maintaining complex assessment tracking systems.
James Pembroke, a primary data expert, recently pointed out in a blog post that ‘30 objectives for 30 pupils is 900 assessments’. And that’s before we even broach the question of how frequently the system requires updating.
If you’re re-evaluating performance against each objective every half term, you’re asking a teacher to make (and substantiate) 5,400 judgements in a year, just for one class.
It’s a wonder some teachers find time to teach at all.
To be clear, I’m a fan of some tracking systems, particularly when used for formative purposes, and when designed to ensure teachers benefit from their existence.
However, I do get nervous when schools use them to closely link together their formative and summative assessment processes.
I would argue that formative data – whether created through teacher assessments or quizzes – should exist only for the benefit of the classroom teacher.
As soon as you ask that teacher to aggregate the same data into summative judgments, you create new, and possibly perverse, incentives.
After all, what teacher is going to enter completely accurate formative teacher assessments in an area where the class is unexpectedly underperforming, if he or she knows that the same data will become a single summative number on a management report for the head or governors?
And crucially, it’s the requirement to enter data in every area to feed a top-level summative judgment that creates so much of the workload that gives data a bad name.
I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a 50 page data report. Literally never.
Maybe I’ve digested the executive summary, or skipped to bits containing my burning issues.
And yet, thick volumes containing table after table live on in schools – and much of the workload burden comes from generating the data to fill the reports.
However, you can liberate yourself from this exhausting existence by instead asking what questions need answering. For example, which of your key curriculum areas needs most management focus?
Where in the school are you having issues with attendance? If a report doesn’t answer a question you could act on, just don’t produce it. You’ll have fewer reports and more action in no time.
Some of my favourite recent technological innovations strip time out of the data collection process.
For example, RS Assessment from Hodder Education’s MARK gradebook lets children sit tests online, then handles all the marking within the system.
That means no marking whatsoever for teachers. Another clever system, No More Marking, takes an innovative approach to writing assessment.
Instead of teachers marking scripts one by one using a complex rubric, No More Marking takes an approach known as comparative judgment.
You upload your class’s work into the system, and then teachers rate work in pairs, selecting which is better.
The system then ranks all submitted work on the same scale, using multiple judgments per piece of work and a clever algorithm to do the heavy lifting.
Amazingly, it can be quicker and more reliable than conventional marking.
Many schools still use systems that require manual data upload to be configured or maintained. I think this is wrong, and schools shouldn’t stand for it any longer.
The technology now exists to automate a link between a school’s MIS and any system – so demand your suppliers do just that for you.
More and more suppliers (including Assembly, where I work) are offering management dashboards that collect and aggregate management data for leaders, governors and trustees.
I’m a big fan of creating identical reports for as many audiences as possible.
However, if your budget can’t stretch to software to do the job, you may find you can reduce report production time with a bit of Excel jiggery pokery.
Numbers want to live in a spreadsheet or database, so if you’re still pasting measures into multiple Word documents, you could strip days out of your data collection processes with a little bit of automation.
If you’re a MAT, you’ll have probably wrestled with how to increase the accuracy and comparability of your assessment data.
Increasingly, I’m seeing MATs build standardised assessments into their processes, either alongside teacher judgments as a reliable and objective reference point, or even as a replacement for teacher assessments.
When we talk about school data, the conversation can be dominated by reading, writing and maths.
However, the questions you need to ask to run a great school clearly stretch into other areas, so consider whether your data dashboard should cover them too.
There’s attendance and exclusions, of course – but it’s also worth thinking about things such as finance and wellbeing.
I’d always encourage schools to include surplus/deficit and budget variance on their high-level data dashboard; after all, many school improvement decisions link to the question of whether you can afford a particular initiative.
Innovative edtech companies like EduKit are starting to offer ways of tracking wellbeing across primary schools.
To summarise, data-driven schools needn’t be dreadful to work in. Whatever your starting point, there’s always more room to streamline your processes, automate your data collection, and simplify your reports. Data hasn’t always had the best reputation in recent years, but by taking some savvy steps, you may find your school can learn to love it.
Joshua Perry is director of Assembly, a non-profit schools data platform incubated by Ark Ventures and the NEON Foundation. Assembly offers analytics and integration services to schools and MATs. Follow him on Twitter at @bringmoredata.
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