Six steps to using data effectively

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Colin Logan asks six key questions about how schools can and should be using their data to help boost student performance.

The former president of Italy, Romano Prodi, once said of Silvio Berlusconi: “The prime minister clings to data like a drunk to a lamppost – more for support than illumination.”

Most schools now realise the importance of data in evaluating performance – for example in preparation for an Ofsted inspection – but is your school making the most of your data in order not only to inform interventions and strategies for improvement but also, as importantly, to evaluate their effectiveness? Here are six quick questions to start you off.

What data should we collect?

Schools often make the mistake of creating a shopping list of data to collect “because it might come in useful”. They often end up being “data-rich but information-poor”. 

Far better to start with the questions that you want the data to help you answer, and then identify what data you need. For example: “Are our most able students achieving as much as they should?”

Do all staff understand what we want?

If colleagues do not understand what you are asking for, there is a fair chance that the resulting data will either be of little use or could even lead you down the wrong track. For example, there is a huge difference between “estimates”, “predictions” and “targets”. Agree your own simple definitions and ensure that these are included in all requests given to staff.

Do you use different sources?

RAISEonline and Fischer Family Trust (FFT), for example, both provide value-added analyses of your school’s performance but they each use different models. RAISE is now totally context-free, although it does give separate analyses for large numbers of vulnerable groups. FFT, on the other hand, currently includes at least gender and month of birth in all its models. Both have value, but you do need to be aware of these differences before drawing any conclusions.

Do we have a whole-school system?

A school tracking system needs to satisfy several potentially conflicting requirements. It should be comprehensive – including whole-school, subject-level, SEN, gifted and talented and behaviour and attendance data, for example – but also needs to be tailored to suit its different audiences. Governors and classroom teachers will need their own bespoke summary data reports which will be different to those produced for senior and middle leaders. 

If your tracking system is fragmented – perhaps with separate systems in different subjects or for SEN or gifted and talented – your ability to use the data effectively and in a proactive manner will be seriously weakened.

Do we have a data gatekeeper?

Having one person with overall responsibility for data collection, analysis and dissemination is fine. Having someone who owns the data and decides what everyone else can see, is not. You need a clear policy on what you collect and why, who does what with it and when, who then gets a report and in what format and what they are then supposed to do with it. But you also need your staff to share ownership of the data and to be able to interrogate it themselves (obviously within certain limits).

It is amazing how often I come across heads of English and maths, for example, who have never seen RAISEonline or who have only been given a copy of one chart or table. Schools that do not allow middle leaders to interrogate RAISE and FFT are missing a trick in their drive to raise achievement.

Do we use data to evaluate impact?

Schools are good at saying what they do but less so in demonstrating the impact. All interventions – one-to-one, behaviour and attendance and SEN support, homework clubs and the rest – cost money. But does your school take time to evaluate how successful they are, for example in terms of improved attendance, attainment and progress, and then use that information either to do more of the same or to stop and start doing something else?

Most schools find it helpful to undertake a thorough self-evaluation or to have an objective review of their data and assessment practice and how it operates at all levels – teachers, leaders, governors and parents – to make sure that their data provides both support and illumination.

  • Colin Logan is a former headteacher and senior advisor with the National Strategies. He is currently head of performance data at The Schools Network.


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