Data has become a dirty word in English schools as of late. I tweeted about this early in the week and, upon the request of Naureen, I want to clarify my thoughts in an extended blog. The purpose of this blog, therefore, is to explore why data has become so unfavourable and elucidate exactly why this is so dangerous.
What’s the problem?
I believe that recently teachers have become scared of using data in their classroom and their lessons. Firstly, and perhaps most fundamentally, some teachers take the view that data and wellbeing cannot neatly coexist. This fear takes two forms. One the one hand, some teachers stress over the fact that data will impact negatively on their wellbeing. This scenario quickly conjures up images of a teacher stuck at their desk, late into the evening, inputting line-by-line of data with a slightly warm microwave meal as they’re ripping out their own hair because one child doesn’t show satisfactory progress. On the other hand, some believe that a fetishisation of data impacts negatively on the child’s wellbeing. I have spoken with friends and colleagues in the past who reluctantly mention how a certain intervention may improve the child’s grades, P8 score or their bucket three contributions. They normally preface any discussion on data with: “but of course it’s not about the data, it’s about the child.” By apologising, teachers are loudly shouting that data and a students wellbeing do not coexist and that these entities are wholly and completely separate. This is wrong.
Secondly, and perhaps quite crudely, data can be daunting. As a form tutor, I keep a spreadsheet of all the assessment grades of every one of my tutees in each subject, their baseline data and their subsequent ranking in the year group. I have a second spreadsheet for all of the EAL students in the school, which is about 75% of the school’s cohort. There is something similar for the History students that I also teach. These spreadsheets are incredibly large and actually too big to simply attach in an email. When I first started tracking this data, it was a challenge to simply know where to look as I all I saw was numbers and colours. I thought to myself: what does this actually mean? However, this data has been invaluable to me as a classroom teacher, a form tutor and now a middle leader. For example, in an assessment cycle a little while ago I noticed that all of the students that started school with the highest band of baseline data (Band A) where not in the top 10% of their rankings of the year group in that assessment cycle. Rather, they were mainly situated in the second quartile. Yet the top 10% of rankings was almost entirely populated with people who achieved a baseline score of Band B when they arrived in Year 7. This highlighted two things to me:
- Not only in my form, but in the entire year group, the students with the top baseline data (who might be typically referred to as more able) were doing something wrong. This had to be changed. (So what, now what?)
- Students who received a lower baseline score (sometimes as low as Band D in the fourth quartile) were doing fantastically, outperforming their more able peers and were thus bright spots. (So what, now what?)
With this data, you can question: what are the bright spots doing so well and how can I use that, as a teacher, to support our most able? Why are the most able students under-performing and what interventions can be put in place to ensure that each child makes progress rather than simply passing the exam?
Thirdly, since the DfE scrapped KS3 levels and teachers have realised the extent to which these were damaging and largely futile, some teachers have forgotten data all together and shunned it as something dirty. Much has been written on this so I will not elaborate on this point any further.
Why is this so problematic?
As I explained in my initially Twitter thread, I was a FSM student for quite a chunk of my life at school. I had happy upbringing but at times we really struggled for money. We lived paycheck to paycheck, I cared for my mother who was unwell and a lot of the time, I helped manage the household finances and juggled my schoolwork. With this, I also looked after my younger sister and prepared her for school, cooked dinners and cleaned. Sometimes, my free lunch was the only hot meal (and sometimes the only meal) that I received all day. This was tough.
I worked incredibly hard at my GCSEs and my A-Levels and secured a place to study History at UCL. When I arrived at UCL, my lectures were filled with mostly white middle class folk and I typically shared discussions with people that went to private schools that cost £30,000 a year to attend. Yes, I felt proud that I had worked so hard to get there and I was now in a room, sharing seminars with the elite; however, I was so unprepared. I hadn’t learnt how to take notes properly at school, I didn’t know how to write a proper essay and what should be written in each paragraph, and I certainly didn’t know how to be original or form my own opinions on a subject. I had no academic confidence.
I then had to work extra hard to not only go through all of the reading for the courses but I had to find a way to learn all of the skills that my peers seemed to just know. This was exhausting and triggered some quite serious issues with my mental health that, at the time, had to take priority. Thankfully, that has all been resolved.
Looking back, I think that my teachers were obsessed with looking after me because I was on FSM. They wanted me to be happy and enjoy life at school because my home life was at times so challenging. They covered me in cotton wool, and whilst I enjoyed those seven years, I was wholly unprepared for the life ahead of me. I categorically believe that the best pastoral support that we as teachers can provide a student is a strong set of GCSEs, the ability to think originally and form own opinions, and an awareness of the world outside of the school gate. Looking back, I would have much preferred it if my teachers were obssessed with my data and the progress that I was making, rather than hollow gestures of happiness to alleviate the stress that I was experiencing elsewhere.
Luckily for me, I knew that education was going to set me free. The better education that I got, the more likely I was able to earn more money and provide for my family. However, I fear that a lot of young people do not think like that. By forgoing on data analysis in favour of upholding a child’s wellbeing, teachers are actually sacrificing the wellbeing of the child later in life. This may well include financial or intellectually wellbeing or, as I experienced, mental wellbeing.
So how can we use this data to help with students’ wellbeing?
- Accountability. Schools make children accountable for their behaviour and actions every single day. We see this as a necessity because, when they enter the real world, they will need to know how to interact with other people. However, making a child accountability for their academic effort and contributions is seen as robbing the student of their childhood and, at worst, inhumane. As an adult, I am accountable all of the time, not just for my behaviour but for my contributions to the school, my family, friends etc. I think it is important to be transparent about a child’s data. For example, I would often sit down with a child and talk them through my observations of their data (especially if they’re not putting enough effort in or under-performing) and I would be fair but frank and tell them that they are accountable for their scores and that they need to find a way of making the score better. If they find that process challenging, I am more than willing to help. I wasn’t given academic accountability at school and struggled at university. These data-accountability conversations should happen.
- Wellbeing = progress. I am not suggesting for any minute that the only way a child can be happy is if they’re making progress. Of course not. I also admit that poorly used data can poorly impact on a child’s wellbeing (like poorly used anything). However, I think it is important to have conversations with students not only about how they’re feeling but also how their studies are coming along. Actually, whenever I discuss behaviour with a child, I link it to their outcomes in the classroom. They will thank you in the long run and, once again, I wish that I had more of those conversations at school.
- Data for moving forward. In schools, we must be careful not to go completely the other way and collect data for the sake of collecting it. Every time I collect data, I add a section called “notes on moving forward” on to the spreadsheet. This was first used with my Y11 class but now I do it all the time. If a child is under-performing, this needs to stop, and the moving forward section helps me to clarify what I and the student will do to change that. Alternatively, if a child is doing incredibly well (bright spot), I want to know why they are doing so well but I also want to monitor them so that they stay on track. By looking at bright spots and noting down the reasons for their achievement, I can help those not doing so well by sharing strategies. The moving forward section of the document is used to track that.
As John Tomsett said during my latest Twitter thread, data and wellbeing goes together like horse and carriage. They don’t just sit neatly with each other, but one drives the other. In this instance, I believe that frank and open discussions about grades and progress drives a child’s wellbeing. Everything I do is to ensure that my students, who largely come from low socio-economic backgrounds, get the best start in life. I am blunt about their data and the competition that they are up against when they sit their exams and go to university. This is because I care. Once again, the best pastoral support for a child is a strong academic foundation.