Speaking back to the numbers

From my previous post, it seemed clear that your desire to talk about education in terms of its higher purposes, like individual fulfilment, creativity etc. was strong, yet the proxy goals of passing tests, hitting targets and delivering measurable outcomes remains very real in your day-to-day lives.

This is regrettable but understandable. With principals fearing for their colleges, and leaders fearing for their jobs, our data driven accountability system has come to dominate almost everything some institutions do. The transformation of complex educational processes into data points that can be used to sort, order, benchmark, compare, and rank has the effect of distorting professional priorities and practice and develops a growing sense of alienation, as teachers are compelled to focus on outputs over individuals (Allen, 2014).

We see lots of data, usually in the form of numbers. Numbers assume a form of objective reality that is apparently beyond question (Taubman, 2009) because they’re seen as ‘scientific’. It seems as though it is not possible to speak back to the numbers because the numbers speak for themselves. Roberts-Holmes (2015) has called this the “datafication” of teaching and Stephen Ball (2015) describes it as the “tyranny of numbers.

The question is, when so many of us complain about this and want something different, why is there “very little evidence of overt resistance and precious few hints of covert resistance” (Hall & McGinity, 2015, p. 12) and this could “…be something about the way that teachers define themselves and their role that made resistance unlikely” (Hutchings, 2010, p. 112).

Those of us wishing to survive, or thrive, under this form of control have had to reconstitute ourselves as “neoliberal professionals” (Ball, 2003). Individual contribution is what counts, made possible by the datafication of many of the pedagogical and organizational aspects of college life. Under this control, passing judgement on yourself or on others, becomes the ideal mode of talking about teaching (Hall & Noyes, 2009).

As individuals then, our struggles with the accountability system become highly individualised as we, as ethical subjects, find our values challenged, or displaced, by the voice of the numbers. Of course there are some who embrace the system and have done very well out of it, the ‘gamers’ i.e. school leaders whose priorities and practices are shaped by the demands of the accountability system, who play the system to get the best outcomes. In more extreme cases, they either exhibit a range of unethical practices or succumb to more explicit examples of career ending dishonesty (Turner, 2016).

At the opposite end of the scale are the ‘missionaries’, school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission — by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their institution. The risk to ones career here of course is equally high.

In-between the gamers and the missionaries lie the pragmatists, the fence sitters, in neither camp, all of them are subject to the magnetic pull of these two poles. The need to meet the performance targets on which their own careers, and those of their colleagues, depend, and the instinct always to put the educational and developmental interests of their students first. Goodrich (1920/1975) called this the “frontier of control”.

On the basis then that we’re not all about to march on the DfE with burning pitchforks (although it has merits) how do we speak back to the numbers? One option is to quit, which, as Ball (2003) indicates, is simultaneously an act of resistance and capitulation.

Alternatively, we can engage in a dialogue about troubling questions and as we begin to question our own ethics and values, we question not only what we do, but who we are. “It requires the deconstruction and recreation of the self and a certain capacity to examine ourselves critically” (Ball & Olmedo, 2013, p. 89).

I hope that this Blog will progressively become a “critical space” in which it is possible to develop an alternative discourse, a refuge or asylum, a forum for “being” and for “being yourself” (Duckworth et al., 2016, p. 13). As we are able to share concerns, care of the self (ethically) becomes care for each other. Transforming individual concerns into shared understandings becomes central to developing the collective responses required to make significant change possible.

And behind all these aims is one over-riding objective: to help those of us who lead and teach reclaim ownership of their institutions, their profession and their practice.

So friends and colleagues, be angry, be sad, be determined, but most of all be you. I leave you with this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcJ4C0pTGDw

Who are you? Has data shaped who you are now and what you have become? Do you like this version of ‘you’ or is the real you fighting to get out?

13 thoughts on “Speaking back to the numbers

  1. I think the only way we can escape the number culture is to quit it, but perhaps we should look before we leap -research countries who have already made it (Finland and Canada have already been mentioned in this blog). Back in the real world (along with most people in education, I’d consider myself a pragmatist), we could look at ways of incorporating subversive discourse into discussions about ‘improvement’. For example, we could supplement a discussion of positive outcomes with a reality check (“…but this is only because …”) to remind our leaders and ourselves the real reasons for the change in stats. Often, most people know the reasons – a manipulation of educational practices – but we are quick to forget them. Alternatively, we could spend what will be probably perceived as a disproportionate amount of time talking about non-measurable aspects (creativity, happiness, curiosity, etc.) in meetings, as a way of highlighting what we have forgetten to focus on. Last but not least , we can continue doing what we do anyway: to individualise students as much as possible and to state in more human terms our relationship with them. I wonder whether a principal, a governor, or even a minister, would raise an eyebrow if we started using the phrase “your students” in educational discussions. It would be a reminder at the highest level of our true responsibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can a pragmatist be subversive? You sound more like a ‘spy’, where the gamers think you’re one of them while you introduce the ethical discourse of a missionary.


      1. That’s a good point. Why does the language of espionage seem so appropriate in the current climate? Is there a way of thinking beyond the idealist/realist opposition? A third way?


  2. It saddens me when educators who are unable or refuse to conform to the datafication of education, are effectively forced out of the sector. Ultimately society suffers from the resulting one-dimensional educational leadership and classroom experience. Where will the future innovators come from?

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  3. A phrase in current use in the EU negotiations is ‘creative ambiguity’. The pragmatists (unfairly described as fence sitters) understand that the management of education (whether by an individual teacher or by a whole college) is not and cannot be one-dimensional. Pragmatists have to live and operate within the creative ambiguity in which ‘soft’ aspects, perspectives on and outcomes of education (identified by one respondent as including creativity, happiness, curiosity) on the one hand and hard data on the other, necessarily co-exist. Neither of these polar opposites can, on their own, satisfactorily define effective education or provide the focus through which continuous improvement can be made. The challenge is to manage this ambiguity.


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  4. So I am definately a ‘fence sitter’, I understand the importance of data and the frustration that we ‘live or die by it’ but I can not allow my ethics get in the way of this, fundamentally we are dealing with people, not numbers.I will always do what I think is best for the student, not what a statistic tells me I should do, I doubt any of us came into teaching to look at a spreadsheet of data but there has been a definite shift in education towards this and I guess to a point, I resist this, but then there is good data and bad data. It certainly doesn’t want to make me leave the profession but it does leave me incredibly frustrated at the lack of leaders, both in education and government, who refuse to look at the big picture and cling on to the data being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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    1. I like your use of “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” which frames the use of data in legalistic terms. Does that imply we should submit our data and scrutiny to that of “12 good men [sic] and true” i.e. be judged by our peers rather than Ofsted?


  5. The pressure of requiring improvement, or heaven forbid being inadequate forces even the most maverick and bold of us to conform to a greater or lesser extent, and play the numbers game. I appreciate the bigger picture of objectivity and having to identify standards for comparison, but there is a limit to how much this is really to the benefit of the human beings in the system. It will take a true understanding from the top – or a revolution from the bottom to enable educational institutions to break free from the expectations of businesslike KPIs


  6. As a ‘fence sitter’, i think i have become used to the importance of data and know when i need to ‘use, define or even manipulate when needed to achieve the wider objectives that i have set myself. This said, and a bit like a recovering addict, i am in constant battle with data and the leverage it has and can have with the work that i oversee.
    As a person responsible for safeguarding, i cannot overlook the qualitative and humanistic part of what i do and nor do i intend to . And yes, there is good data (as well as bad) which can help inform my work, allowing me to allocate resources more effectively.
    Data can be useful as a Manager but it does not make me a more effective leader


  7. As an idealist I think that the only thing that we can really consider important is that we do the best job we can possibly do for each individual in our care (and as a manager I am including both staff and students in that). I want to work in a place where everyone wants to do their best, everyone is given compassion when they are trying to achieve that but have barriers to their progress in their way and where we don’t blame students or staff for not doing their best every day but we do also ask them why not and try to support them to do so rather than let it go. I think data is a tool that we can use to help us and that if we see it as a tool that we use rather than a stick that we beat ourselves with then it can serve us not rule us.
    I have always believed that change comes from within and that if enough of us believe that we can make things better then we can do it and we can show that to others, OFSTED included. I think the hardest thing is to be able to say that out loud rather than just in a blog, and to be able to get others to come with you. We need brave leaders to stand up for us all.

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  8. I’m not the biggest fan of data. Whenever I see a spreadsheet, my eyes mist over and I start to feel a terrible nausea. Nevertheless, I appreciate that data has its place in the system. My husband works in a secondary school in a relatively poor area of Leicester. Data has become an egalitarian tool there – irrespective of their background, all students are expected to make (and show in the stat’s) progress. If they don’t, teachers are held to account.
    Gone are the days of teachers sitting behind desks, feet on the table, earphones in, while students work through endless pages of Ginn Maths (or that’s how it was in my day); and by the same token, gone are the days of students taking personal responsibility for their learning. Teachers, under so much pressure to drag them through, spoon-feed exam technique and stifle thought by linking every shred of learning to assessment outcomes.
    The world has changed. Employers want pragmatists, not thinkers – they want cogs in the wheels of the capitalist system – not idealists who will question them. We’re preparing students to be ’employable’ in a world in which the Obamas are replaced by the Trumps.

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