I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as a statistics guru, but in September 2012 I became data manager at Meols Cop High School in Southport.
I had joined the leadership team at the school the year before and grown frustrated at the time spent analysing data, knowing there had to be a swifter solution.
We were using SIMS but too many modules were underused and some staff held vital data in their own network spaces. Accessing real-time data on attendance or behaviour was tedious; I needed to meet with relevant colleagues or have the network manager access it for me and just hope that things were up-to-date. Outwardly, nothing seemed broken but I knew that if we were going to support students to make the best possible progress, our data systems needed to be streamlined.
A key motivation for centralising student data was to support a whole-school focus on closing the achievement and progress gaps between English and mathematics. In 2012, 92 per cent of students were making three or more levels of progress in English, whereas 63 per cent of students achieved the same measure in mathematics.
I began my work by finding out which data-sets key stakeholders, including support staff, needed to see and how this would have a positive impact on student learning and wellbeing – focuses of our current National Teacher Enquiry Network studies.
The key areas were identified as student progress, attitudes to learning across subjects, and a summary of home learning grades.
In order to make the system more useful, I had to do a lot of work on the software itself – how it looked, worked and what information it was outputting – and on the school culture around data. My main aim was to make data easier to use and more widely used by colleagues – I even held a Christmas Quiz on our RAISEonline data!
I worked in close collaboration with the outgoing data manager, a progress manager who has energetically promoted SIMS Discover across the school, and administrative colleagues.
They were invaluable in helping to develop how we analysed data. They even devised a way for teachers to update the attendance register via their iPads! These relationships were also vital for another part of the project: making students’ real-time data accessible to parents through the school’s website.
The aim here was to make data less mysterious and to encourage parents to be more aware of students’ progress, attendance and attitude to learning. There’s still work to do here, but the foundations are now set.
We began collecting students’ data in Christmas 2012 and, while it took a while for patterns to become clear, good data has supported leaders to hold the right conversations with the right colleagues at the right time.
Subject teachers record all interventions that have been used to support students, helping us to ascertain the impact of each. Our philosophy was that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. For example, one question was: “Is another letter home to parents worthwhile or should we try something else?”
Once behaviour stats started being gathered, we could see very clearly what we always felt: the vast majority of our students had outstanding attitudes to learning.
Too often it is the red flags that are the spur to action, but we have a very clear culture around celebrating success, typified by our established Going for Gold programme of rewards. Improving our data system meant we could identify students who deserved to have their effort, politeness, appearance and positive attitudes praised, awarding them points towards their running total.
It also shows-up cases where a specific, personalised approach and strategic thinking is required. For example, there was one tight-knit group of boys whose progress in maths was good, but could have been more rapid. The system showed they were well-behaved and did their work, but we realised that instead of putting in some extra time, they preferred to be outside during lunchtime and after school playing football.
If we were going to change their mindset, something extra was needed. So we used data to identify two who were very close to achieving their expected progress, and entered them into an earlier exam session. Small group tutoring during normal lesson time helped them to make more progress – and they achieved their target grades. Having a created a “can-do” culture, we then asked: “Right – if you work smarter, you can get a higher grade. Do you want it?” They both said yes. This had an impact on the entire group and they began attending extra lessons. It is about finding the right strategy for the right students.
One of our assistant heads gets great results by working with small groups in her office over a cup of tea and her famous homemade Mars Bar cake.
Improvements to SIMS have also meant that we help students create tailored progress plans, that we have called Flight Paths, for each subject. I developed these with our deputy head and subject leaders.
It is a simple document that students use to record targets and progress, allowing teachers, students and parents to see where the student is achieving well and areas where extra support might be of benefit.
The aim is to encourage students to take a lead role in their learning and development, and to identify where they could apply different learning strategies.
We encourage this responsibility wherever we can, for example at parents’ evenings, we now expect each student to talk parents and teachers through their Flight Paths, their areas for development, where their learning has taken them, and where they’d like to explore next.
The latter aspect is central to school culture: we set out to celebrate every success. Part of this is accomplished by having posters around the school that emphasise the value of effort and aspiration, and praise students for specific achievements. I saw this used in schools in Washington DC, when on a study tour with the Future Leaders programme, and brought it back to Meols Cop.
Some people might be a bit derisive about this kind of thing and a few students might not want to publicly admit that it matters to them, but I’ve seen its impact. I recently spotted one year 11 student walking down an empty corridor after school, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and looked up at one of the many posters on the wall. I saw him throw a quick glance around, checking that no-one was watching (he didn’t see me), before doing a swift fist-pump and walking on. I went over to see what he’d been reading. It was one of our “progress stars” posters – with his name on it.
The determination shown by everyone in the school to close the gap has had a positive impact. Last year 77 per cent of students made three or more levels of progress in mathematics and we have sustained levels of progress in English with 89 per cent of students meeting the measure.
I was proud that our recent Ofsted report praised the quality and use of data – but data is not our focus; it is important but so many of our successes are in the intangibles, in the positive feeling that cannot be measured. Ofsted summed it up perfectly: “This school crackles with ambition.”
I am enormously inspired by our headteacher and her vision for a culture where respect, care and praise are the norm. My work has been about helping colleagues to identify where students need support, where students should be praised for working harder and achieving more, and where achievements can be celebrated.
Future LeadersThe Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, intensive leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support through a network of more than 300 Future Leaders. You can apply now for 2014’s intake of the Future Leaders programme. You can also nominate a colleague who you think would make an inspiring headteacher. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk
Mark Brownett is assistant headteacher at Meols Cop High School in Southport.