School data – Getting back to basics

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The collection and use of data is vital in schools today, but it is not the whole story. Former head Gerald Haigh visits three schools to find out how they use data and its place in school improvement strategies.

When I became a headteacher, in the pre-digital era, my inheritance included an elaborate system of paper tests. Administering these, marking them and converting the marks into age-adjusted values, took up what I judged to be more time than the results could justify. As a result I told the staff that we would stop the whole process in its tracks and spend the saved time and money on better lesson planning, better discipline and more library books. Brownie points, I have to say, rained gratifyingly upon me 

“Ah but,” you say, “within those test results was information that could have informed and personalised your teaching.”

Maybe, but the effort of winkling it out of a stack of paper was simply too daunting. 

Now, though, thanks to technology, data is easily collected, sorted and presented. You can, at least in theory, flash it up on your screens and use it to do a better job. This is a process with a name – “the intelligent use of data” – and it results in “the data-driven” (or, if that’s too strong, “data-enabled”) school.

So, data, manipulated by technology, will save your school from damnation will it?

If I ever thought that, I was rapidly put right by Eunice Newton, principal of Aston Academy, a large comprehensive in South Yorkshire. I was there because I understood them to be making effective and sophisticated use of assessment and examination data. 

This is a school with a remarkable improvement record. Its five A* to C percentages, including maths and English, went up from 39 to 78 per cent between 2006 and 2012; Ofsted from “satisfactory” to “outstanding” between 2007 and 2010.

So I sat down and waited to be told about their software. That did happen, but first Ms Newton wanted me to be clear about its place in the overall scheme of things.

“You can have all of that, but if behaviour isn’t right, if teachers aren’t focused on learning and teaching, then it won’t have the effect you’re hoping for,” she said. Then she went on to describe, in detail, the measures that she and her team had taken to improve teaching and behaviour. 

She emphasised particularly the school’s innovative deployment of “learning progress managers”, one for each year group. These are non-teaching staff, trained within the school, who monitor the learning progress, punctuality, attendance and behaviour of individuals across the curriculum. They are aware of targets, and if necessary they can make recommendations – changes of seating, plan for example.

At the same time, there is a continuing drive on quality of teaching, aimed at the Ofsted “outstanding” criteria. Advanced skills teachers and senior staff make up a learning and teaching team that leads on regular focused CPD supported by a programme of lesson observation.

For her, it was clear that data analysis did not compare with the long drawn-out period of hard work that had gone in to getting a grip of the core task.

Another school that I visited also on a mission to look at data analysis was George Green’s School in Tower Hamlets. They, too, have experienced “Ofsted shock” – in their case it was “notice to improve” in 2008, having been “good with outstanding features” in 2004. As with Aston Academy, they responded by attending to teaching and learning, building a confident, self-evaluating staff team under the effective leadership of principal Kenny Frederick. 

“We have a teaching and learning team,” she explained. “Our best teachers are identified across the school and they plan all the CPD.”

There’s a programme of coaching, observations, targeted training. “Staff really work with us on observations,” added deputy head Charles Claxton. “There’s precise feedback, sharp judgements and we train people to take feedback as well as observing.”

Just why, then, was I looking at data analysis in these schools? The answer, in both cases is that the effective use of data is the added, crucial ingredient, coming in alongside all the other hard work, supporting, providing feedback.

So at Aston Academy, for example, data is studied in detail at every level by senior and middle leaders, class teachers and learning progress managers (support staff who monitor student progress across year groups) to the point where they will quickly pick up the slightest deviation of any kind by any student from expected progress in any subject. Then it is a matter of discovering why, and working with the student, and the parents/carers if appropriate, on the right intervention. 

Vice-principal Rebecca Hibberd, who leads on the use of data, said: “Three years ago we stopped writing reports and introduced a half-termly collection of monitoring data. This effectively says to students “your target is here and you are currently here”. We give it to children and parents and it informs the interventions that we use at all levels.”

Teacher Amy Rozmus added: “I know where every student in my class is – have they met their target, what’s the reason if they haven’t?”

That ability to home in on individuals – “forensic use of data” is how Ms Hibberd describes what they do at Aston – is equally in evident at George Green’s. 

Tom Williams, head of year 11, describes the benefit for middle leaders: “It’s transformed their ability to identify not just the students who need support, but the individual curriculum modules, the groups and the teachers. It influences their teaching, how they set up their learning groups, and pushes back the boundaries.”

All year 11 tutors, he says, can have sometimes difficult conversations with individual pupils. “We can say, ‘this is you compared with other subjects, or with other pupils’. It all has a sharper edge than before.”

Sharing data with parents is an important part of the story at both Aston and George Green’s. At a third school – Witchford Village College in Cambridgeshire – this became an urgent focus of attention five years ago when a survey showed that parent and student satisfaction levels were significantly less than in similar schools. 

As in the other examples, a raft of basic measures was put in place, and technology provided crucial leverage. A parent gateway for online home-school engagement, introduced in 2009, together with the facility for real-time automatic messaging to parents by text or email has underpinned the school’s steady record of improvement. 

Director of pastoral services, Shona McKenzie, explained: “Parents log-in to see whether their children are on track with attendance and achievement. They can look at the register, and see lesson-by-lesson attendance. So when they come to parents’ evening there are no shocks or surprises.”

This school, too, has seen significant improvements in key areas – exclusions dramatically down. GCSE A* to C including maths and English up from 37 to 62 per cent, Ofsted rating from satisfactory to good with outstanding features. 

What’s the conclusion, then, if you’re a school on a mission to improve? Clearly, technology will help, but you don’t start with it. In each of these examples, the starting point has been the hard and lengthy spadework that is, we all know, the only way to achieve sustained improvement. There’s no doubt, though, that once the escalator starts to move, the data, accurately gathered, neatly analysed and clearly presented, is indispensable.

And finally, let’s not forget the Ofsted dimension. If you present an inspection team with a forecast of the current cohort’s exam results, how much more likely are they to accept it if you can plonk before them hard evidence that the equivalent forecast last year turned out to be impressively accurate? And then show how you achieved it? That is what the George Green’s leadership team was able to do at their recent inspection. 

  • Gerald Haigh is an education writer and former headteacher.

Further information
Aston Academy and George Green’s both use 4Matrix for the further analysis of data extracted from their management information systems. Witchford Village College uses SIMS Learning Gateway and In Touch.
 
CAPTION: Data debate: The senior leadership team at George Green’s School, including headteacher Kenny Frederick (right), discuss their students’ data


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