Data is a good thing, right?

I have been in this profession since 1995 and I am able to hold in my head the memory of what the teaching was like back then, I can also remember what the job was like in the early 1980s when my dad was a teacher and later Head of English in a deprived mining town secondary school. Remember the good old days of no accountability? At school I affectionately recall Fag Ash Lil, who spent every maths lesson outside chain smoking while some of us tried to work from our text books and ignored Ian S hitting David N with a chair.

Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988 accountability has become established in England, supported by the ever-increasing use of data and data-systems that cyclically process test and examination results to feed back to eager recipients. Colleges were introduced to the accountability regime following the publication of The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which …

…gives the Further Education Funding Council (the Council) the duty to ensure that satisfactory arrangements exist to assess the quality of education provided in colleges within the sector (FEFC Circular 93/28, 1993)

It is difficult to argue against the fact that over the last twenty years data and accountability systems have played an important role in improving FE and 6th Form Colleges. The benchmarking data on levels of retention and achievement in England in the Further Education Funding Agency (FEFC) report (2000) showed that:

achievement rates for students aged between 16 and 18 studying for qualifications at notional level 3 increased from 75% to 77% between 1996-97 and 1997-98, building on an increase from 73% in 1995-96” (p1).

Data from the national achievement rate tables 2015-16 now tells us that in 2016, the achievement rate for this group had increased to 93% and the transparent use and publication of accessible data now helps parents make informed choices. The Test-Data-Inspect model has worked and no one has yet come up with an alternative.

However, despite the improvements there has been constant criticism. Most of this has been centered around Ofsted and the increased workload that data driven accountability has (inadvertently) produced and of course, the sense of loss of “professionalism” and trust.

Dr. Becky Allen argues that the main impetus for change has to come from school leaders, since they have created the audit culture. We know in our hear-of-hearts that it is impossible to audit teaching and learning accurately – respected academics worldwide tell us this. Dr Allen says…

“leaders need to learn to live with this uncomfortable truth and stop asking for lesson plans, performing book scrutiny, reviewing marking and collecting tracking data”.

However, expecting us to reverse years of learned behaviour, without any guarantees of protection from those demanding figures, data and proof, requires considerable bravery on our part.

Are league tables all that matters? Obedience or survival?
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So, given the improvements that have and which can be made through the use of data and associate systems, why is there such a barrage of criticism and bad press? And just how brave are you?

12 thoughts on “Data is a good thing, right?

  1. I value being able to give myself direction by looking at stuff that tells me where there might be a problem but I want the freedom to be able to think about what we need to do to make things better creatively. I think data can be useful but shouldn’t rule us.

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    1. There is no disputing that, as a Curriculum Leader, data can be useful: to highlight problems and make improvements. The issue is that data has become the be all and end all. Not just a tool, but the educational air that we breathe.
      The problem is that what is lost isn’t necessarily measurable. Curiosity, independence, creativity, wellbeing, anything that doesn’t fit easily onto a spreadsheet.
      Another problem is what the hit American TV series, The Wire, describes as “duking the stats.” In the fourth season, the cop-turned-Maths-teacher, Prez, discovers children are withdrawn from class to improve their SATs results. It was the same when he was a cop, he says: not only is data manipulated, but it leads decision-making, and not always in a good direction.
      But if we don’t like it, why not change? The expectations from the Department of Education, Ofsted, the Principal, the Senior Management Team, teachers, parents, even the students themselves, are too great. Education has become a transactional system, a marketplace where results are bought and sold. (And this might also be literally true. Are house prices more expensive near Outstanding schools, pricing out poorer families?). Not only that, our burgeoning workloads and the sheer pace of the working day doesn’t make it a plausible option.
      One possible solution: look at countries which aren’t so data-obsessed data? How are they doing? Just don’t look at their results!

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  2. Common sense tells you that data is helpful and yes to a certain extent it is. Having an overview of what is good and what isn’t so good can point you in the right direction and focus your attention. What it doesn’t tell you is why something is or isn’t ‘good’. Most importantly, are we really measuring what we value? Pass rates, retention rates, success rates, achievement rates are all very well, and we can pat ourselves on the back when they go up, but they only tell you part of the story, and for that matter the part of the story that someone else wants you to measure. The restrictive nature of current data used by the Government means that a considerable amount of the genuine success stories are never heard.

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  3. You just need to look at the UCAS process to see what is happening to young people in modern education. Is it really what we want human beings to be doing, processing data? To become consumers of knowledge, as if it was a commodity, and then to go out and market yourself, which is what teaching in education seems to have become – how to market yourself.

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  4. Data is important, but they can’t provide educators everything, especially when we’re looking for root causes of students’ who may, for example, have learning difficulties. Teachers need to ask questions and think and then consider the data after, rather than the other way around.

    Data/information is important but it cannot be a pancea. Used properly it can help busy parents engage with their children’s.

    My parents whose first language is not English struggled to have any meaningful communication with any of my teachers when i was at schools in the 1980’s. And unless there was anything wrong with me or my conduct no news was good news until the first parents evening.

    Today, as a parent. i have an app dedicated to providing me with a DAILY update on the progress of my daughter; which would include pictures, videos, milestones achieved, right down to the number of minutes spent reading her favourite book! This is great, but will it enhance the educational outcomes of my daughter….i very much doubt it

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  5. Having recently fought to get my son assessed for Dyslexia, I believed that the diagnosis would ensure his school supported him effectively and that it would pave the way for him to have a better educational experience however…I am now concerned that his school (which has just been named in the top 80 primaries in the country) will now put him to one side as he won’t be in a position to boost the SAT’s results that they are so blatantly chasing. The data has attracted the attention of the SENCO but may also result in a lack of interest in him from the year 6 teacher! Ironically the data that would allow a school to treat a child as an individual could also result in them being ignored in the success driven system we find ourselves in.


  6. Performance data isn’t perfect but it is getting better. Progress measures – though in need of a lot of further improvement – are much better than for example success rates which had all sorts of unintended consequences. And it is also important to remember that data should never be used as the only measure of the effectiveness of further education. Inspectors and colleges themselves triangulate output data with the observation of processes such as teaching, student support and indeed the effectiveness of leadership and management.

    It is entirely right that stakeholders in further education – parents, students, government and others – have information upon which to judge how effective a college is. If that performance is not good enough, then there should be the ability to apply sanctions and, through inspection reports, praise where it is due. Sanctions and praise are instruments of power, and no organisation providing a service to people, particularly if that service is publicly funded, should be entirely autonomous. And data, along with the other perspectives on quality, is also essential within colleges to help teachers benchmark (in the widest sense) their own performance and to improve, and for college managers to apply the same processes across the college as a whole.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong or pernicious about data in FE. The issues are how to employ the most appropriately focused data, to continue to work hard to ensure that it is accurate, and to use it as one of a range of tools to measure what is most important. It will never be perfect, but is much much better than nothing at all.



  7. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of data as it doesn’t necessarily show the true distance travelled of a learner. It doesn’t reflect how hard student A has had to work despite not meeting an arbitrary target. The feeling also that data will at sometime in the future mark us as a good or bad teacher ( to an extent, I think it already does this) despite knowing ourselves that we have gone above and beyond to get that student to get any grade at all had led us to be suspicious of data.
    On the flip side, I took over a failing department…having the data allowed me to see that my interventions seemed to be working and measure the progress year on year. When the data was positive, I could see that that data was useful and gave me a focus but there was still always the unknown/unpredictable…the student who left for personal reasons/couldn’t cope in the exam/couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed to do the exam who in turn make us slaves to negative data.


  8. I see data as a way of ascertaining whether my students are performing at a level comparable to that of their peers nationally and indeed internationally. There has to be a clear and consistent way to measure important educational data such as progress, achievement and destination otherwise no teacher, nor institution will know how well (or badly) their students are learning.

    Data also identifies gaps that teachers can then plug to improve students’ outcomes. We can use data as a tool to encourage students to strive and work harder as well as to chastise and ‘give it plainly’ to those students who are not performing at the level required. We can use data to encourage teachers in terms of allowing them to identify their strengths and weaknesses. When quantitative data is reliable and unbiased, it is an invaluable tool.

    The issue that I have with data is the danger of agencies using it as a stick with which to beat teachers and colleges. The pressures of Ofsted and league tables can lead to fearful institutions massaging the data (or worse completely fabricating it) which in turn leads to nonsensical, worthless data and box ticking. For data to be best utilised, it should be used supportively for learners, teachers and institutions. It should be collected in a uniformed way, and the government should explain to teachers why the data is important and how/when it must be reported in order to achieve consistency.

    A recent example of when the government has not been clear enough in its instructions to colleges is from this academic year. decreed that from March 2017, every college must publish data on their five accountability measures (progress, average grades at key stage 5, progress made by those learners without a GCSE C or 4, the proportion of students who complete their main programme or study and student destinations) on their website. However, auditing of this has shown that of the 20 largest colleges, none of them has published the accountability measures on their website.

    In summary, I feel that data is a valuable tool when used in a supportive way. Governmental agencies must ensure that they clearly communicate why colleges must publish particular data sets and must ensure that data is harvested in a consistent manner so that the data is meaningful and free from bias. I also strongly feel, although the government seems set on using purely quantitative data, that there is great value to be derived from qualitative data as this is where data takes on a more human element.


  9. As mentioned in the article by Paul Glossop ‘ever since the education reform act of 1988 accountability has become established’. Accountability ensures that we as educators are delivering the goods and achieving successful results. After all, we have chosen this rewarding career to inspire and educate our students so that they can succeed in their lives, which in turn is reflected by the data that is generated throughout the academic year and final results. The analysis of data is incredibly important, without it, we would not know where our students are and how we can support them on their educational journey. When the day of judgement arrives every year (also known as results day), we gather for a whole staff briefing where analysed results will be on display for all to see. Our academic year revolves around data but this useful tool can easily become a weapon that results in exacerbation of teacher workloads. We need to make choices about which data are most relevant to help our students and staff and ignore the rest.


  10. Data is a valuable tool, of course it is. It’s increased participation in education and forced institutions to work with rather than dismiss the students who might otherwise disengage and disappear. But are we serving the interests of those for whom education isn’t the right choice, when we force them to stay? Wouldn’t some be happier in a career that offers a feeling of fulfillment rather than failure – the failure of being spoon fed and dragged through courses in which they’ll only ever scrape a pass?

    The introduction of National Target grades based on prior achievement – again, data based. How much information do they really offer about a student and what they might achieve? Why do we collude with a system that has high expectations of middle-class students (with their private teachers and parental support) who were always bound to achieve well at GCSE, and accept – sometimes with relief – low target grades for the under-privileged who were never given those props.

    Data has made everything measurable. Lost in the process or recording, tracking, measuring, monitoring, is real education – the gift of an enquiring mind, the love of learning, education for education’s sake (not just as a banknote to roll you through UCAS). My daughter, pretending to play teacher, marked and annotated a student’s UCAS personal statement with comments such as ‘To increase your mark, have you tried..?’ and ‘Check target 1’. She’d copied some of the comments I’d written on GCSE work, and it made me feel miserable… I wasn’t asking students to ‘consider’, question, or ‘explore’. My feedback was driven towards quantifying improvement.

    Individuals are lost in percentages and stat’s.
    Data should be a tool not synonym for education.


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