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Without data you’re just another person with an opinion

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This feature of the blog is a continuous exchange of correspondence between Graham Birrell and Sam Freedman.  Here Sam responds to Graham’s first post: Drowning in Numbers

Neural network representationDear Graham,

Really this debate comes down to whether one thinks schools have improved in the last thirty years or not. After all there’s been a massive increase in accountability since the late eighties; a lots more tests and data. If your view that these things are inherently damaging is correct then the quality of education must have seriously deteriorated.

My view is that schools have significantly improved over that time. There are lots of reasons for this – not least the growing stature of the teaching profession – but the increase in data and accountability has played an important role.

In 2000 there were 241 secondary schools in which fewer than 20% of students achieved five good GCSEs in any subject. Last year there were none. As recently as 2008 there were 638 secondary schools where fewer than 30% of students achieved 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths. In 2012 it was 43.

These improvements are, to some extent, due to grade inflation and a greater focus on borderline pupils but they are not phantom. They have had a profound impact on the life chances of many thousands of young people. Since 1985 there has been an 88% increase in the number of 16-18 year olds in full-time education. There has also been significant growth in the number of young people from disadvantaged communities going to higher education.

Some fairly blunt policies, like floor targets, have been used to drive change at the bottom end but data has led to better things across the board. It’s widely acknowledged, across the political spectrum, that the London Challenge played a key role in the incredible improvement of inner-London schools. The Challenge was underpinned by “families of school” data which was used to, well, challenge underperformance. It allowed brokers to match weaker schools to stronger ones and identify those that needed a change of leadership to turn them around.

At the school level there’s been a data revolution too. I don’t know of any truly outstanding school that doesn’t use data about pupils well. It allows them to target resources on those that need them the most. Doing this does not require that they abandon creativity or the enjoyment of learning. You seem to think schools need to choose between the Apollonian or Dionysian path. The best follow both.

At a national level the advent of the data age has improved policy-making. You may not like the current Government’s policies (or the last one’s either…) but it would be difficult for any serious party to argue for grammar schools now given the clear evidence that early selection is regressive. Likewise the Express and Mail’s assertions that immigrant children bear responsibility for our education woes is refuted by the data showing the weakest performing group are white British boys. Of course there’s still too much dogma and anecdote in the education policy debate but without any data that’s all we’d have. As Andreas Schleicher often says: “without data you’re just another person with an opinion”.

At an international level the introduction of PISA has been revelatory. Like national test data it can be misused: looking to directly transfer policies from other countries without an understanding of different context is unwise. But used properly PISA data can give us genuine insights into global best practice. It has also led to an internationalisation of the education policy debate. There’s a growing sense that policy-makers from across the world are pooling their efforts to find better solutions.

Of course there have been downsides to this growth in data. Accountability systems inevitably create perverse incentives and badly designed ones can be pretty damaging. The massive growth in pseudo-vocational qualifications between 2004 and 2010 – driven by their inflated point scores – is one particularly egregious example.

But the benefits clearly outweigh these negatives. At every level: school; national; global we know so much more than we use to. We can target resources better; identify policy problems and, yes, hold those who are underperforming accountable for their actions.

Best wishes,


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2 Responses to Without data you’re just another person with an opinion

  1. Andy Bloor Monday, 15 April 2013 at 15:18 #

    I suppose the most interesting point (and one where you apparently have consensus, albeit played down in Sam’s reply) is the egregious manner in which schools tie themselves up in knots trying to ensure the ‘facts’ show the reality in the school.

    For example, the facts on a league table may be very stark in pupil attainment, but without the narrative behind it can be weak. A school may have a low SATs average, but this may be against a backdrop of significant improvement from initial attainment; good value added. A school may suddenly have a dip in results one year; on the face of it there is a problem, but then when it is explained that one of the teachers died just before Christmas, the data makes sense. The problem (most notably with league tables) is where the data is seen as the ‘end result’, not as a starting point for a discussion around what the data may be telling us. Until this happens, schools can hardly be blamed for focussing on ‘getting the figures right’.

  2. Jonathan Barnes
    jonathan Saturday, 20 April 2013 at 23:38 #

    Having taught in secondary and primary schools for the last forty years I feel I can speak with some confidence about improvements or otherwise in education over the past thirty years. What I can say is that in primary education, Maths English and Science (important and taken seriously throughout my career) have all improved but only as steadily as I would have expected over such a long period. But subject progression, genuine cross-curricular links, the delivery/experience of an inclusive curriculum, teacher-pupil relationships and children’s motivation all improved markedly over those years, (especially in the last fifteen). These educational improvements are vital ones for children living in a time of rapid change and facing an unknowable future. I fear from what I have read in the proposed new primary curriculum and the rhetoric I have heard from Michaels Wilshaw and Gove, that each of these is massively under threat. The threat comes from a curriculum and inspection even more focussed on the core subjects (and a narrow, centrally-driven interpretation of these), more likely to alienate those with a special needs, from the demotion of and loss of attainment targets in the foundation subjects and from suggestions that children can’t be creative until they know a load of facts. It will be easy for children and parents to feel that they can only have genuine achievement if they make it in the core subjects and that good behaviour is measured by their degree of compliance and lack of criticality