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Da Da Da Data

I was thinking about an old Police song today, as I considered the current massive focus on data and its use in education. The Police song is actually called 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' and you can watch them perform it here. 

Interesting that it has 'do' before 'da', which reflects how I feel about data and how we use it. We need to do something, carry out actions, in order to generate data, not start with the data and shape our actions to improve it. Data is important to schools and their leaders and we gather a whole suite of holistic data about how schools and teachers are doing, and on our impact for learners. Teachers do exactly the same, day in and day out, as they seek to understand where their learners are in their learning, and the impact they as teachers are having on that learning.

If you were to see some of the press releases and statements that have accompanied the introduction of the new National Improvement Framework (NIF) in Scotland, you could be forgiven for thinking that schools, headteachers and teachers in Scotland have been failing to recognise how data can help and support them, and have been failing to capture any such data about how their learners are progressing in their learning. In my experience this is very far from the truth. Schools in Scotland are awash with data. The trouble is a lot of this is complex and quite sophisticated and is not in a simplified form of percentages, percentiles, levels or letters that everyone can see and understand, especially it seems our politicians. They are looking for a simplified piece of data that they can use to identify year on year improvements being made by the system and by our learners, and perhaps how effective they are in holding schools to account and driving forward improvements. We're it just that easy folks!

As part of the process and procedures to help provide us with the data that 'will enable us to close the equity gap and raise attainment,' as the NIF states, is the reintroduction of standardised testing for primary and early secondary pupils. Andy Hargreaves, who helped write and inform the OECD report on the Scottish Education system published in December 2015, said only last week 'the data can't tell you what to do.' He, and the report which interestingly was commissioned by the Scottish Government after they had produced the draft NIF, recognises the importance of data in improving our schools, but he is pointing out that, useful though data is, what it doesn't do is tell teachers and schools what actions they need to take to address the issues that the data might reveal. To do that, in my opinion, we need to focus on three main areas. We need to embrace career-long professional learning, improve leadership and really focus on, and resource, early intervention strategies. After all, recent research by Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ( ) and others has  shown that there is already a substantial gap in language and problem solving skills in learners from the most disadvantaged households and the most advantaged before they enter the education system.

So, it is action that is important, not just data. The data can and should inform the actions we need to take, as long as it is the right data and we remember to engage critically with it. So it is what we 'do' with data that is important, and which can lead to improvements for our learners, as long as that data is showing what it purports to show. The Education Minister and First Minister in Scotland have been at pains to point out that it will be 'teachers professional judgement' that will be at the heart of the evidence they will collect about learners progress in the Scottish system. I hope that this is so, and that this 'professional judgement' is informed by a suite holistic data gathering, which will include standardised testing, as it does now. What my fear is, and there are signs of this happening already, that everyone's attention narrows down to the standardised test results and this will quickly be the way that we decide on which are good schools and good teachers, and which aren't. Standardised testing was never created for that purpose and to use them in such a narrow 'cause and effect' way fails to understand what they can, and what they can't, do. Should this happen, we will move to a 'data driven' system and all the pitfalls associated, such as 'teaching to the test', 'high-stakes', 'high accountability' and a focus on 'performability' and 'compliance'. This would be a disaster for schools, the system and learners. Performance measured in such a narrow way might look to improve year on year, but gaps will widen and nothing will have really changed for our learners. All that will have happened is that everyone has got better at 'playing the game.' 

The NIF sets high ideals for Scottish education that no-one could really argue with. The jury remains out on whether it can support us to achieve those ideals, or whether it will be consigned to the history books of educational development as another example of the failure of 'more of the same' approaches to produce different results.

'Insanity lies in continuing to do the same things and expecting different results.' as someone once said.

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