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The end of data-mania in schools? Welcoming the DfE report.

Matt Koster-Marcon
Nov 26, 2018

There should have been a collective sigh of relief teachers across the country let out at the publication of a new report from the DfE: Making Data Work, authored by the Teacher Workload Advisory Group. The report signals a seismic shift in focus for education policy. It’s also an acknowledgement of a system in crisis, with teachers spending less time teaching than they do on work outside the classroom: a hefty chunk of this being taken up with gathering data solely for audit/Ofsted purposes, rather that to improve teaching and learning. In a letter to school leaders published with the report, Damian Hinds, the Education secretary, commented: “Teachers are having to work way too many hours each week on unnecessary tasks.”

Putting an end to needless tracking

At its heart, the report calls time on the audit culture of endless pupil tracking that has been the blight of teachers’ lives in recent years, with countless hours spent entering numbers into spreadsheets and no confidence that the information will lead to improved outcomes for pupils. It advises that the DfE, Ofsted and senior managers stop requesting so much data and reporting from teachers, and it recommends schools reassess their policy on information gathering and record keeping reducing the time teachers spend on admin. The authors even question longer-standing practices, such as end of term report writing to parents. The report also advises local authorities and Ofsted to accept data in the form that schools can most easily present it.

Reading the report, I found myself transported back to 2014, when a perfect storm of a new curriculum, increased targets, data requests and inadequate software led Hiltingbury School to create Learning Ladders as a solution to the problems schools were facing. But whilst acknowledging that the bureaucratic realities of a teaching career may feel intensely frustrating for teachers, it’s worth remembering that as with most educational interventions, the current data-gathering mania began with good intentions: to turn information into actionable insight. The problem is that in the context of a school, where individual learning and progress vary wildly and are notoriously hard to predict, this is a difficult thing to do well.

With Levels data gathering seemed to become an end in and of itself, a monster at the heart of every school that needed feeding. This report reflects a myriad of frustrations and evidence of collateral damage that come with repeated waves of changing targets. The authors highlight the fact that rigid algorithms and outdated tracking software used in many schools add unnecessarily to teachers’ already overwhelming workload with very little benefit for schools, pupils or parents. Teachers forced to comply with this educational number-crunching are left feeling badly micromanaged, at the mercy of technology that thwarts rather than supports them. In many cases, data requests from multiple sources (senior management, Ofsted and local authorities) force teachers to introduce and administer extra testing. Any benefits are likely to be delayed, as the retrospective analysis of data gathered delivers no short-term benefit to individual pupils. This compounds frustration and disillusionment on the ground day to day.

Having meaningful conversations about data

But although there is much to welcome in the DfE Making Data Work report, and it certainly shows the DfE is listening to teachers, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are better, less time consuming, more meaningful ways to use data in schools. Data gathered day to day and visible to teachers and senior managers in real-time can inform behavioural strategies and educational planning in a way that’s adaptable and practical. Aside from a few glancing references, the report also misses what I consider to be the key to effective data management on pupil progress and learning outcomes: integrating parental and pupil engagement into the journey of each child’s performance and progress. This must go hand in hand in order for education to be effective. Research shows that effective parental involvement can have up to 6x the impact of what happens at home (Sacker et al, 2002) c whilst visibility of learning for the students themselves (so they can keep track of their progress), is the factor that delivers the biggest improvements to learning outcomes. Where pupils have a sense of agency and ownership, and when assessment appears transparent and inclusive, results improve.

How Learning Ladders can help

You may be wondering why we are welcoming this report - as there is, after all, a tracking element to the Learning Ladders tool. But the core purpose of Learning Ladders is not to audit data but to generate actionable conversations about learning between teachers, pupils and parents, and it is this that sets it apart from traditional tracking tools.

“We’ve tried lots of different assessment tools, but Learning Ladders has opened up the professional dialogue within year groups. Each term we come together and moderate, scrutinising what, for example, maths looks like within all the classes. We use the triangulation of assessment: we look in books, summative and formative assessment – the whole picture – so we are constantly reviewing what learning should look like. This means we can move forward with our planning and judge where we’d like to go next in class.” – Fiona McDermott, Senior Leader, Teaching & Learning, Safa Community School

Learning Ladders is fully customisable, ensuring a solution that fits the particular requirements of schools, teachers and pupils. The interface is inclusive, building a bridge between parents and schools that the schools we work with tell us is a game-changer:

“Staff use Learning Ladders as an additional assessment tool to monitor pupils’ progress and to set targets and challenges. As a result, pupils and staff have clarity about the next steps in learning.” - 2018 Ofsted report, Gwyn Jones Primary School, east London

We hear similar sentiments echoed often amongst our customers, and it’s great to see our platform is having this impact. I believe that such feedback reflects our ethos of putting individual pupils at the heart of the platform.

“Pupils and parents speak highly of ‘Learning Ladders’ and a joint working ethos is being developed between home and school,” - 2018 Ofsted report, Gwyn Jones Primary School, east London

For schools looking to move away from legacy tracking systems, and reduce the administrative workload of their teams, the introduction of Learning Ladders can do much of the work for you, giving teachers an accessible real-time tool, they can update on the go. Its flexibility also means that you can ensure teachers are only asked for essential data, so that wasted time filling in endless fields becomes a thing of the past.

Summary of advice in the DfE report

The DfE report ends with guidance for schools which offers advice for heads wanting to sense-check their data processes and cut box-ticking by teachers right back. Run through our checklist, summarising advice in the report:

  • Ensure you have simple systems that allow behaviour incidents, detentions and other pastoral information to be logged during the normal working day, rather than at break and lunchtimes, wherever possible.
  • Minimise or eliminate the number of pieces of information teachers are expected to compile and ensure your team understands the quality and purpose of the assessments being used in their school – including details of their reliability and validity in relation to the curriculum.
  • Review your approach to reporting and parental engagement, ensuring you inform parents of their child’s performance and behaviour at school in a way that is manageable for teachers. Consider how best to set out expectations to parents.
  • Before collecting data decide what the planned intervention for students is, and focus on targeted groups of pupils for data gathering rather than asking teachers to focus on whole classes.
  • Don’t have more than two or three attainment data collection points a year, and ensure this data is used to inform clear actions.

This report, coupled with the new Ofsted inspection framework which comes into force in September 2019, marks an exciting time for schools who want to bring conversations - in the classroom, at home and in the staffroom - away from data, and back to learning.

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