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Performance data is not the enemy

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On this blog we’ve covered just a few of the things headteachers and senior leaders deal with in their jobs; rifle-wielding parents, handstand policing, preventing radicalisation. One thing we haven't yet mentioned is the demand for Will Hunting-esque levels of number crunching.

This is not one of those ‘data is the root of all evil, children are only numbers in the RAISEonline totalitarian regime’ thinkpieces.* I am a firm believer in spreadsheets, and think there is a time and place for the use of evidence and quantifiable outcomes.

After all, it helps you notice trends. I think most will agree that allowing schools to support pupils who need it is a good thing, and in order to do that, it is essential to identify the performance of those pupils. But the ever-increasing focus on isolated sets of data, combined with a floor target approach to accountability, can become a stick with which to beat schools.

[caption id="attachment_4720" align="alignright" width="814"] Above: from the famous scene in 2001's 'A Beautiful Mind', where Russell Crowe's John Nash went insane trying to compare his current disadvantaged pupil's GCSE results with the pre-2014 methodology.[/caption]

Grievances arise when a school is judged only on publicly available performance data, at the neglect of other factors such as the school inspection visit. This letter from a primary school headteacher, airing his complaint to Ofsted, says that the lead inspector based his judgement of the school entirely on RAISEonline data. Considering how much schools prepare and sweat over Ofsted inspection, it's a bitter pill to feel that those visits are only for show.

It is not the first complaint of this nature, and it isn’t just the over-reliance on data that creates mistrust. Criticisms pop up from various sources all over the sector - of the coasting schools measure, RAISEonline reportsschool performance tables or progress 8, to name a few. Add to that the mistrust that arises when Department for Education policy is justified by a misleading use of statistics and you'll find that not everyone is thrilled with the data-driven approach to schooling.

Of course, people criticising RAISEonline's methodology is not the same as politicians highlighting only favourable statistics. But whether it’s one school’s RAISEonline report or the performance of every maintained school in the country, misuse equals mistrust. And it is exactly because data could be so helpful to schools that its misuse is detrimental to the sector. These criticisms invariably argue not that we shouldn't use data, but that the data we're using is flawed.

In short, data is not the enemy- false use of it is.

The good news is that a part of the solution is already at play. Ofsted has recently reformed its inspection system and acknowledged that schools’ own tracking data for current pupils should play a bigger role than historic performance data. And progress 8 may not be perfect, but it’s an attempt to reform accountability so that we account for the differences in pupil's backgrounds and starting points.

Still, until the misuse of data and statistics is properly addressed, you can't expect schools to fully support it.

*If you feel robbed of a staunchly anti-data piece, please accept some unapologetic opinion on other topics: OK Computer is the worst Radiohead album, The Office US is five times better than the UK version, Peter Crouch is an underrated footballer, the film is usually better than the book.

Members of our school leader service can log in to find a detailed guide to analysing your RAISEonline report and information on how progress 8 scores are calculated. We also have articles on presenting progress data to Ofsted for primary and secondary schools.

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