Making Data Work: not as boring as it sounds

Making Data Work, perhaps not the title of a report you would run to the photocopier to pick up to read whilst on duty. That said this report, published by the Workload Advisory Group and accepted in full by the Department for Education, is a searing indictment of current practice around data in schools and should have a huge impact on the way assessment and performance management is done in schools across the UK.

Sadly the government’s lack of desire to put any of the reports recommendations into law and the fact its findings have been mostly aimed at school leaders than middle-leaders and classroom teachers have left it to the unions and individual teachers to disseminate the findings and make sure policy within schools is informed by them.

Before you set your next performance management targets and before you review your assessment policy you really need to make yourself familiar with where our profession stands on the use and mis-use of data. I hope this overview of the three most important sections for classroom teachers can assist in getting the word out.

Making Data Work

Performance Management

When I attended an NASUWT briefing on this report the part which naturally took up most of the discussion was on performance management and, especially, the use of data targets in judging teacher performance. It is refreshing to be able to quote part of this report, written in bold text, which I think every appraiser and HoD needs to be aware of

pay progression should never be dependent on quantitative assessment metrics, such as test outcomes

This is such a crucial finding of the report that NASUWT have produced a poster which contains little else but this section of text. There is nothing here that was not already common knowledge amongst the profession but, seeing it in print, in a government document is a huge step forward for tackling issues of workload and data misuse.

Current practice in using pupil attainment data in teacher performance management systems is often poor. Research demonstrates that using quantitative metrics to judge teacher performance is difficult since few of the practices that we can straightforwardly codify and measure are highly correlated with teacher quality.

Those ‘quantitative metrics’ do not just mean test scores but also graded lesson observations and scores following book scrutiny. You would be well within your rights to print out pages 17 and 18 of this report and take them with you to your next PM meeting. In fact, I would say that if you don’t you are making the chances of pay (and career) progression for yourself less likely. The NASUWT has discouraged its members from setting data-driven targets for a while but now there is a report, accepted by the DfE and Ofsted, that backs them up on this.

Predicted Grades

“There is not currently any evidence that setting students challenging attainment targets is motivational for them”

We should try, as far as possible, to make predicted grades just that; predictions of the grades our students will achieve. There is no evidence that ‘aspirational’ target grades act as a motivational force for either students or teachers and they can sometimes become counter-productive in increasing stress for staff and students alike.

“Flight paths for pupils with similar starting points are not valid”

You may not be shocked to hear that those perfectly straight, colour-coded lines which are used to determine the progress a student makes from KS2 through to GCSE results are not accurate reflectors of the teaching and learning process. Within my subject there can be big variances from one assessment to the next in terms of difficulty of material, availability of notes and writing frames for students and time since the material was taught, not to mention the day-to-day variances in student behaviour, understanding and mood.

The report gives the example of Linton Village College, a secondary school in Cambridgeshire. They scrapped whole-school data drops and marking frequency requirements and set out to pursue a “meaningful and manageable” policy where subject teams have assessment deadlines that sit within curricula and subject leaders have greater freedom and autonomy over assessment and data within their departments.

Advice to Schools

This part of the report is the clearest in setting out what schools should do to mitigate the poor use of data. The recommendations should ensure that the use of data has a clear purpose which is relevant to the audience for which it is collected, that there is a precision about how data is collected and what can be inferred from it and that the amount of data and the frequency of its collection is proportionate.

Here are the key recommendations which you need to consider whether you are an NQT or a headteacher.

School and trust leaders should:

  • minimise or eliminate the number of pieces of information teachers are expected to compile
  • understand the quality and purpose of assessments being used in their school

School and trust leaders should not:

  • have more than two or three attainment data collection points a year, which should be used to inform clear actions
  • make pay progression for teachers dependent on quantitative assessment metrics, such as test outcomes

Unfortunately, though the report was commissioned by the DfE and both Ofsted and the DfE have ‘accepted its findings’, there is no move towards implementing any of its recommendations through statutory instruments (as far as I can see). Instead it is up to the unions and individual teachers within schools to disseminate these nuggets and use it as a tool to reduce workload, stress and attrition from the profession. I suspect many will be put off from even skimming it due to its dreary name and a perceived disinterest in ‘data’ but I have found it a very useful tool to have in my arsenal when discussing something which is now one of the top three concerns of teachers working in this profession.

Making Data Work – the report in full –

Joint Letter to School Leaders on the Report –

NASUWT Briefing on the report –


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