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NIF levels and what they tell us

Last week it was PISA and this week we have had the National Improvement Framework (NIF) data published in Scotland. Taken at face value, we don't come out of this process very well, and the Scottish Government and Ministers have received pelters from other politicians and the media as a result. It almost made me feel sorry for them. But then again if you want to use such spurious data to justify your 'controversial' steps to improvement, perhaps I am being a little too generous at Christmas time. 'Beware what you wish for' applies to politicians as much as it does to the rest of us. My last post was about all my concerns regarding the PISA results and how they are used by politicians and others to justify re-shaping the curriculum and other structural changes. I do not intend to revisit those arguments here, but what of the NIF data?

Each school and local authority in Scotland was asked to state how many children had achieved the expected levels in P1, P4, P7 and S3, using 'teachers professional judgements'. This information was submitted to local authorities in June and was then submitted by them to Scottish Government early in the new session. When this information was put together, there had been no publication of 'benchmarks' but I am sure that some Local Authorities, like my own, asked schools and teachers to show the type of evidence they were using to support their judgements. Trouble is, there is no agreed method of doing this across schools or Local authorities. So some have undoubtedly been hard on themselves and their judgements, and others less so. The data produced as a result, possibly says more about procedures and structures prevalent in different Local Authorities and the NIF, than it ever could about attainment in learning. A bit like PISA, we are not comparing apples with apples, in fact we may not even be comparing fruit with another piece of fruit!

But, it would seem that to many, data is data and can be used to come to big judgements about the state of Scottish education as a result. If only it were that simple. Its not, and never will be. The performance of schools and an education system is a complex organic process, influenced heavily by contexts. Taking a narrow focus, or using snapshots, can only ever be a tiny part of an overall process of judging the health and performance of such systems. The total picture needs assessment data that is wide-ranging and captures the totality of everything a system is trying to achieve. At individual school level, I do not judge the quality of teachers or teaching and learning using one measure or one piece of evidence. There are a whole holistic suite of pieces of evidence I collect on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis that give me confidence in knowing the strengths and development needs of the schools I lead. Some of it is recorded and formal, but much more of it is not recorded and is a lot more informal in nature. Lots of it, I couldn't present in a graph or a chart, or as a percentage a number or a level,  because its about relationships and the security of trust I have with individuals. Assessment of a system is equally complex and nuanced, and you also have to ask yourself what is it we are measuring and why? The old maxim of 'valuing what you measure, rather than measuring what you value' comes to mind again. Scottish education is not just about attainment, important though that is. Which is why I believe we really need to have a new conversation around what we understand about 'education' and what we see the role of schools to be, before we can then re-evaluate our curriculum and structures to see if they match what we truly aspire to. Or do we just want to improve the data, no matter how spurious, and insignificant, that may be.

I am sick of hearing about 'the bar being raised'. I have never gone into school, or worked towards lowering, metaphorical bars. I have the highest of aspirations for all learners in the schools I lead and in the system we are part of. But, I am a realist and I know we are where we are, not where somebody else thinks we should be. I understand that sustainable and meaningful growth takes time and commitment. It is not achieved just by someone saying we have 'raised expectations' or we are 'raising the bar'. If you keep doing that, all that happens is that schools and teachers get further and further away from the new height, but they still have to play the game of appearing to get closer and closer. Its an illusion, and does our learners no good whatsoever. I predict that the NIF data will improve next year, and that nobody will be that bothered about the reasons why it has improved. Government will use this to show how their strong actions and policies are beginning to work, and why we need more of the same. Perhaps the press coverage might even sway towards the positive, rather than constantly seeking a negative slant.

School and system development is messy and sometimes you have to go back before you move forward again. It is not this idealised process that some think,  where it is portrayed as a continuous linear process of unfettered improvement and growth. We make mistakes. We learn. We constantly evaluate ourselves against our vision and values. We reflect and are self-critical. We plan and make changes, some of which work, some of which don't. We collaborate with others as we seek to embed meaningful change. I can detail the actions we have taken every year to improve what we do. The benefits and impacts of those changes often take time to manifest themselves in our learners. But, we are constantly trying to get better, and we are committed to working with anyone who genuinely wants to help us do that. Please stop asking me and others to demonstrate impact after a few months of a change being implemented.

I would urge anyone, either within education, or those looking at us from outside, to not get too down about what such data as we have seen published this last two weeks appears to show. Equally do not get too congratulatory or carried away when it appears to improve. As Andy Hargreaves said earlier this year 'what data doesn't do is tell you what you need to do.' Good robust data should be used to inform sound, well thought out and reasoned actions, and not to promote more knee-jerk reactions and policy making. The search for more and more data seems to be the latest fad, trend or 'silver bullet' current within education, as the HMIE might say 'so what?' They are also starting to say 'this is not about proving, but about improving'. I agree, if data doesn't inform or help you get better, why are you bothering? We need to be critical consumers of data, as we are with research, and by doing that we will protect ourselves, and more importantly our learners, from the consequences of blind acceptance of interpretations of that data made by people who accept everything and question very little, especially if it supports a view or stance they have already taken.

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