What did you think about data when you were a teacher?
It certainly wasn’t something I loved – in the 20 years I was in the classroom, I can honestly say there were times I even hated it. Changes in curriculum, syllabus and political expectations mean the goalposts often seem to be moving, so drawing meaningful conclusions can be tricky. I’d go so far as to say that data can be a very dangerous game if not used well. I’ve seen it used as a stick to beat people with, rather than being used as the basis for a constructive professional dialogue.
What do you think about data now?
I now know how useful it can be – in the right hands and used well.
What do you mean?
Data is all about spotting the trends and then having conversations to get the depth of understanding; you cannot just get the data and act on the data alone.
Let me explain.
Teachers are all about having a positive effect on their individual pupils and making sure they get the learning opportunities they need to make a real difference to outcomes, with all the improvements to their life chances that can bring. To do that, leaders need to use data as a starting point for contextual conversations with the right people.
Can you give us an example?
Well, let’s take attendance. Using a tool like Novatia’s Questa, I might be able to see that a particular year group has really low attendance compared to other year groups. Alarm bells start to ring.
This is an anomaly that data, presented in a visual format, has allowed me to easily spot. But I need to find out more. I need to find out why this is happening in this year group.
I might be wondering:
- Has the curriculum for that year group switched a lot of them off?
- Have there been staff absences that have affected this year group?
- Is it a particular group of students who are facing a challenge of some sort?
Rather than heading off looking at all of these possibilities and jumping to conclusions, I need to interrogate the data further.
So, I drill down.
What a more in-depth look at the data might reveal is that it’s the same pupils who are consistently late. Pupils with varying abilities and in different form groups. But interestingly, we can use Questa to look at where these groups of pupils live. Within a few clicks, we might have identified that all live in one particular area, on about three roads.
I can now use the data have contextual, meaningful conversations with the correct group of pupils.
In this example, I find out that over the last three weeks the bus they catch has been late. They tell me it’s because of huge roadworks. Some investigation on the council website shows the works are due to end in two weeks. We discuss with the pupils realistic alternatives so they can get to school on time and not begin their day feeling rushed and stressed.
That sounds powerful. Is it a new approach then?
No! There is nothing new about this – schools have always been having these conversations.
What is new is that we can press a few buttons, have the data to hand then and you can see presented visually what you need to know. It’s the ease and speed at which that information is available, without requiring lengthy analysis, which enables it to be used as a springboard for timely, meaningful conversations.
What advice would you give school leaders now about data?
First, ensure that the data you are collecting is something you can draw meaningful conversations from. Next, collect that data but collect it consistently. This is really important. Find a system, stick with it, so you can draw some comparisons from one assessment point to another rather than finding yourself trying to compare apples with pears.
But utterly crucial is the ongoing conversation with staff to ensure that they are completely buying in to your assessment approaches and standards. If that doesn’t happen, then it all falls down as you can’t rely on your data. Keep talking with your staff so you keep your standards and conversations alive; keep having meaningful conversations about data and the rationale behind the approaches you are using.
Why do school leaders need to keep talking about data with their team?
You can’t just have the conversation at the beginning of the year about data and that’s it – they’ll forget! They have other stuff to do and more immediate priorities.
So, your role as a leader is to make data an integral part of the conversations in school.
Help your team understand why it’s important to have a consistent approach across the schools, help them understand how you are using the data to spot anomalies and have the meaningful conversations. Show them how it is not data for data’s sake, but data for helping and improving the educational experience of their pupils because you have informed, evidence-based decision making.
Is there anything else that’s important?
Make sure data is as visual as possible. This makes it easy for you and your team to spot patterns, pick up anomalies, and ask questions so you can discover where interventions might be needed.
Jan Harrison is currently helping multi-academy trusts (MATs) across the UK to implement Questa, a data solution designed to help MATs store, analyse and use their data effectively. For further information, visit the Questa website or click here to contact Jan and book your free 30 minute Questa Demo.