Make your school data C.O.U.N.T.

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
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How can we use our data effectively? Garry Freeman advises on collecting, managing and analysing your school’s data so that it is meaningful, relevant and useful for your teachers

The collection, analysis and use of data is one area of our work in schools that so many educational professionals know is a substantial turn-off, a huge disincentive, for a huge number of practitioners.

School leaders at all levels need always to remember what it’s like to teach for five hours or more a day, to have a keen grasp of the pressures faced by most teachers, and to understand that the most effective use of data is that which keeps it simple.

A good principle to live by is the acronym of COUNT:

  • Collect
  • Once
  • Use
  • Numerous
  • Times

We also should remember that we need to relate data, particularly hard data, the facts and figures of school performance which have become the staple diet of performance analysis over the last 10 years, to the circumstances of individual teachers if we expect them to use it effectively. How can we do this? Some golden rules include:

  • Keep the data simple.
  • Use a broad brush and understand that, especially in respect of special and additional educational needs, soft data is just as important as hard data.
  • Ask the right questions of your data to help you reach conclusions which in turn enable the most effective support of your students.

Remember that, above all, what we do with data needs to primarily tell the story of our students’ success. For this, the starting point for anyone looking at your school’s data should be your website. We need to ensure that the various elements of our websites are in harmony in how they present and interpret school data.

What types of data do we need?

The main types of data we should be concerned with include:

  • Dashboard data. This is done for us as a snapshot in time. Remember to consider how your school is being presented on the government’s school comparison site (see further information).
  • Data showing progress over time.
  • Attendance data.
  • Behaviour data.
  • Family and personal data.
  • Health and social care data.
  • Any other data which is evidence for our work.

This last category is an important one: we need to be showing how our students are making progress in ways other than simply academic.

For our disadvantaged students and those with SEN, this is particularly significant in the context of Ofsted looking at the effectiveness of provision for these students before making a final judgement.

The effective approach is to ask ourselves what is the story of progress and/or achievement that we are looking to tell – and therefore what evidence do we need to tell that story in terms of assessment information?

Let’s not forget that our analysis and use of data can prevent a student being overlooked for a number of biased reasons or perceived flaws which have more to do with cognitive distortion or dissonance than with the reality of how a child is progressing and what the school needs to do to support them.

Our school staff and data

Do some of your staff see data as an obstacle to their teaching, just another thing they have to do, something which doesn’t tell us anything about the children and young people we work with every day?

We need to address the issue. Collecting and analysing data helps us to make more soundly based judgements and decisions on where children are achieving or underachieving, which subjects could be under-performing and so where the school needs to focus in terms of improvement. This in turn helps us to target resources more effectively.

Could negative reactions to the use of data be rooted in anxiety related to a lack of understanding of the data and why and how it is used? Could these reactions be connected to an unwillingness to self-reflect on the part of some staff, an unwillingness to see what the evidence is telling them, or a reluctance to change their practice?

If so, the solution could more than likely be to keep assessment information systems simple, streamlined and therefore effective at showing staff how the data relates to them directly?

What can we do?

We can ensure that we have a minimum standard for staff in the use of data to enable them to self-review. We can empower our staff with continuous professional learning by using data which is most relevant to the job they do – relating it specifically to their teaching groups. It simply isn’t necessary to use the broad brush of every member of staff having to know every aspect of every piece of data within a school.

Simplicity and relevance

Encourage your staff to look at data for their teaching and/or tutor groups, to be able to spot areas of concern. For example, we can use transition matrices to identify students not achieving expected progress and cross-reference this information with other forms of data, including non-academic data, to interrogate why this may be happening.

Use a “where are we now, where do we want to be and how are we going to get there” approach to reflect and self-review on how the data needs to change to tell the story of your students’ achievements. This can work well with colleagues who are cynical of data to get them to consider effective in-class and other interventions to change the data outcomes.

In itself, done collaboratively in department meetings, year group meetings or targeted workshops on training/twilight days, this can mean that staff discuss and identify the issues that can affect a child’s access to and engagement with the curriculum. It can lead to:

  • Particular needs being identified.
  • The identification of possible barriers to progress.
  • The establishment of more collaborative ways of working within departments and other teams of staff.
  • Staff embedding more effective ways to differentiate.

Why does this work?

It works because it produces more effective use of data, more effective staff and improved outcomes for our students because we are making the data more real.

We are talking about real students, with real problems¸ real challenges and how to actually help them in the real world. Once staff are supported in how to unpick data, they can quickly see that it is telling the story of each student.

Schools, leadership teams and governors should all use data to tell the personalised story of their students rather than rely on the broad brush approach to which we have become accustomed.

We can also ask:

  • Why could a student or group of students be attaining better in one subject than in another?
  • Why do some subjects seem to have more success than others with the same students?
  • How can we use our data to drive forward attainment of our students and therefore of the school?

And why don’t you try this three-question challenge when analysing student data?

  • What do we need a student to be able to do in x weeks or months that data tells us they cannot do now?
  • What do we need to do in order to support them to be able to do it?
  • Who else do we need to work with to support them to be able to do it?

Essentially, at the heart of the third question is our relationship with parents, particularly the more challenging and hard-to-reach ones.

How we look at our data at the person-centred level enables us to:

  • Develop partnerships – especially with parents.
  • Develop person-centred thinking and planning.
  • Develop our offer and provision as a consequence of the first two points.

The January 2015 SEND Code of Practice – itself informed by the Lamb Report of 2009 – requires us to work collaboratively with parents as the experts on their child.

Remember that in his report, Brian Lamb commented that “in the most successful schools the effective engagement of parents has had a profound impact on children’s progress”, and that our personalised analysis of data helps us to identify possible underlying issues.

To achieve the outcomes we need for a child – to change their story – let’s remember that data gives us a sound basis for working with parents as equals: co-production as it is referred to in the SEND Code of Practice.

Listening to parents, taking the time to build the relationship, furnishing them with the means to contact key staff directly, acknowledging and accepting it when things go wrong, being prepared to apologise and work together to improve outcomes for their child – all of these can happen when we personalise our data, make it more real for staff and challenge them to think around it – when we use our data effectively.

Questions to help you use data effectively:

  • When we gather our data, is it comprehensive and high-quality? Are we using contextual, baseline, pastoral and longitudinal?
  • When we analyse our data, are we doing so in a way which is meaningful for our teachers and our students’ parents?
  • When we question our data, are we digging deeper to explore the roots of any problems and successes? Are we looking to replicate our positives?
  • When we act upon our data, are we involving parents as appropriate? Are we using it to inform lesson-planning, to be more rigorous in our reflection?
  • Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and SENCO at Guiseley School in Leeds. Find him @GS_gfreeman. You can read Garry’s previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Further information

Compare school and college performance, Department for Education comparison website:


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