The Way Forward

…. for data analysis in education.

Firstly it is right to acknowledge that schools are all at different places in regards to how they handle and manage data.

More importantly it is also correct to say that there are significant differences between schools in what they expect their data analysis to provide, to whom and the importance that they place upon it.

In some schools, data and it’s use is confined to the few, usually selected SLT members and the people who manage the systems. For teachers in these schools this may be something of a relief on a day to day basis, but they may also find that at certain times, data is something that is done to them and not something that they feel they have any ownership over and have engagement with.

Initially, this sort of approach was the norm, schools would have a one person or a handful of people who would deal with performance data and it would only really be these people who would be expected to have understanding of it. These data gatekeepers would be the people who used the analysis systems and reported how the school was doing.

Increasingly, schools have now moved to a model where these same people mentioned above are no longer gatekeepers and are now facilitators for the data. Partially this has been due to familiarity as staff have become used to the MIS and analysis systems that are in place and partially due to a recognition that data requirements for accountability purposes are not going to go away. However, more crucially this has also come about as a result of a wider recognition of the role appropriate data knowledge and application can have on student outcomes, through both teaching and learning and both whole school and targeted intervention strategies.

A challenge that has always existed for data use in schools is the battle to limit confusion. The Government is partially responsible for this through it’s creation of shifting sands in performance and achievement measures. However in many cases schools allow this confusion to manifest itself through the use of multiple estimate and targets given to students in their time at the school and through the use of a variety of different systems within the same school to monitor achievement. Confusion is likely to reign for a while longer at least as the Government makes yet more seemingly uncoordinated policy changes. Differences in ideals, and methodologies between schools is to be expected as there is no one size fits all for everyone. However within schools, I cannot see variation as a positive thing. Different departments should be working towards similar agreed whole school outcomes, and between teacher variation in terms of measuring progress (for example) within a single department is not something that I see as a recipe for success.

Often problems in data analysis strategy occurs because there is a reluctance to STOP doing things that have been done previously that are now obsolete or simply not up to date with current educational thinking. This in turn creates unnecessary burdens at all levels. Just because the school has always produced a report on X measure or Y policy, shouldn’t mean that it will always need to. In my experience, especially from local government employment, there is far too much production of reports and the data that drives them that nobody is going to look at and no longer impacts on anything relevant. In turn bureaucracy increases and because so many things are produced then people lose sight of the wood for the trees. People then start to become overburdened and tend to end up doing a lower quality job on the stuff that really matters.

Something that was put to me recently is that there are data analysis systems on the market that create what SLT want to see and therefore they find useful and there are systems that the data manager finds intuitive to set up and therefore they find useful to meet the high demands that are placed upon them. However, I think this is all wrong. The systems should be built from the bottom up, first of all meeting the needs of the teachers to best help them identify and challenge students who they deem necessary for support, the system should help them evidence what they intend to do, what they have done and what impact that has had. Once that is in place then the system can be improved, to seamlessly provide what SLT need to have and to make life as easy as possible for the data manager. Too many systems leave the poor teacher that has to decipher them as the afterthought. Teachers are sometimes made to feel that because they cannot remember the correct sequence of menus to follow, buttons to click and which data reports to focus on and decipher that they are somehow at fault.

The system should enable the teacher to make decisions, not hinder them, not burden them with passwords, menu choices and multiple reports. The focus should be clear, everyone should be working towards the same goals which ultimately are governed by the leadership of the school. A system that teachers can readily engage with is better for everyone in the school.

The way forward for data cannot help but mention the fact that the backbone of data for many years is being phased out – National Curriculum levels are of course on their way. Schools are expected to develop their own curriculum and with that they will be expected to measure their own things that define attainment and progress in their setting. However, whilst losing levels is an exciting opportunity to redefine education in schools. It is also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the learning journey may in future be open to interpretation but there will still be a starting point and a destination – through which the Progress 8 measure will form a large part of the defining criteria on the success of a school.

So essentially – for a teacher – in a classroom – teaching. There will be little change. Students in the class will have some sort of starting point, they will have a target that they are expected to reach as a minimum and the teacher will be tasked with progressing them from the starting point to/and beyond the target.

As ever there will be a raft of methods for judgement and comparison purposes provided by national bodies that will tell interested parties how a school has performed in terms of moving students between the starting point and the end point. This is currently the case, and will continue to be so. However, it is time for schools to think about how they will internally measure between these two points, when there will not be a single path of progress for everyone to adhere to. Analysis systems on the market, rely to some degree upon the uniformity and direction that is currently given in order to provide reports that can be utilised across multiple schools.

For me, there is an obvious solution which schools need to start thinking about now. Schools need to develop their own in house skills so that they can adequately measure in the way that they want to, and not become unable to follow their curriculum ideals because they do not have the means to quantify it. By building a platform of skill sets within your support staff you can future proof yourself against shifting goalposts and enable yourself to take any direction of travel you wish.

There are many many, incredible data managers out there and they all have different skills already, some are absolute geniuses with how they maximise the use of their MIS. Some are experts in the professional data analysis systems that are available, some know the rules, technical guides and more like the back of their hand. I also say to all these people – add another string to your bow and take the time to learn some SQL, some VBA, improve your Excel skills because if education continues to diversify away from a single path for all schools then these niche skills will increase in importance.

Personally, as a starting point I think you cannot go wrong with upskilling in Excel. I class myself to be an analysis person, as opposed to a systems person. Often the worlds of systems and analysis collide and often they are also the one and same. However, one of the arguments leveled against doing your analysis in Excel is the old “How will your school cope if you get hit by a bus tomorrow”. Well firstly, I’d sort of hope they’d be more worried about either me, or the bus, than some spreadsheet tool I’d created. Secondly, I have colleagues who knows as much as me, if not more about the systems, because they had the ideas and helped me implement them. Finally, with over 500 million active users of Excel worldwide, I’d hope that at least a few of them could reverse engineer a formula.

Back on topic and to summarise, my advice on data in the current education climate to schools is:

  1. Evaluate your data strategy and facilitate the use of data at all levels.
  2. Don’t commit to any one strategy or system for too long. Stay flexible.
  3. Reduce data analysis and reporting that you feel has minimal impact/use.
  4. Invest further in the skills of your data and IT support staff.
  5. Ask yourselves what you want to have, not what you can currently have.
  6. Design analysis for impact in the classroom, not just the boardroom.

Take control of your data destiny. Make your own future.

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