Education, it sometimes seems, is nothing but churn and every change brings with it talk of new data and software solutions to help us on our way. Have we already reached ‘peak data’ or is the use of data and supporting software solutions continuing to keep pace with the needs of the education community?
State schools have become expert at using data to monitor how their pupils are doing overall and whether groups subject to particular factors – such as gender, ethnicity, FSM – are doing as well as they could and should be. So how are schools doing with the data challenges ushered in by the new National Curriculum (NNC) and changes in Ofsted and government expectations?
‘Life after levels’ has required quite a shift in mindset; seeing the departure of something which teachers didn’t seek and never loved might have seemed to demand unbridled celebration until the euphoria subsided and people began to ask, ‘What will we use instead of them? What is the government expecting of us now?’
The requirement of the NNC is deceptively simple; it sets out the ‘essential knowledge and skills’ every child should have and gives teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum to meet their pupils’ needs. Ofsted wants to see that each school, ‘uses detailed formative and summative assessment to ensure that pupils, teachers and parents know if pupils are achieving the expected standard or if they need to catch up’ and also that the, ‘the assessment system is linked to the school’s curriculum’ – so all schools need to get their data ducks in a row sooner rather than later.
Upping the data ante
So, schools now have clear information on where each child is expected to arrive and have freedom to decide how to organise curriculum content and teaching methods in order to deliver this destination. Add into this mix the government’s new rule on ‘coasting schools’ and it’s easy to see just how high the data stakes have become. “Following the recent SATs, the first proper test of the new knowledge-based, mastery curriculum, most schools have just had strike one of three against the much misunderstood 85% coasting schools target,” says Gareth Davies, managing director, Frog Education. “It’s a target that comes with teeth if missed three years on the trot.”
Schools need to build an assessment process which allows them to see where each individual child is up to and what’s needed in order to move successfully through to the next stage on their learning journey. This involves a different degree of data expertise; we must not fall into the old trap of being data-rich and knowledge-poor. “Data only becomes effective if it stimulates questions about the actual learning that is taking place,” Martin Pipe, head of service, scope and design at RM Education, points out. “Schools need to understand the key metrics that make a student at risk of not meeting the progress expected, or what needs to be changed to ensure students have all the tools to exceed their predictions.”
Now more than ever schools need to demonstrate that they know, based on evidence, where each pupil is up to and what the next steps will be – a ‘personalised learning portfolio’ for every student; modern technology makes all this – and a whole lot more – possible as IT solutions are already changing the way teachers plan and deliver their lessons, says Gareth. “We design software to collect and manage this. The key to using this data effectively is the better planning it enables – working out which children need help, in what way. All sorts of creative intervention and enhancement solutions are being applied by teachers who now have a very clear picture of where their attention is needed.”
Already, in many of our schools, teachers no longer stand in front of the class and deliver the same lesson to everyone; instead, semi-autonomous software guides children through the syllabus and the teacher is there to support individuals and small groups as needed, encouraging, explaining concepts and answering questions. Evidence is starting to build which shows that pupils learn more effectively when they are pursuing their own, personalised goals than they do in traditional teaching regimes.
Nowadays many schools already adopt ‘bring your own device’ policies or provide pupils with cheap and easy to set up tablets which collect impressive amounts of data, stored securely in the cloud just calling out to be analysed – and all schools now need to give this approach serious consideration. Colourful and cost-effective apps provide attractive and motivating front-ends for the children to use while the web platform quietly tracks performance against each learner’s goals – goals which have been set by the teacher with a view to moving each individual child closer to ‘mastery’ over the skills required by that part of the curriculum. These programs have been shown to work exceptionally well with subjects such as maths and research is well underway to develop apps which will support ‘more creative’ areas of the curriculum.
Joining up the dots
At the year group or whole school level this very child-specific data is aggregated up to create a picture of classes and cohorts and particular groups and can be very successfully utilised by MATs to look across, as well as within, its schools. “It’s possible to use this wealth of information to ascertain how effective one school is compared to another. This allows a MAT to ask questions and to uncover examples of best practice that can be shared across the group,” says Graham Cooper, head of product strategy, Capita SIMS. “Using data for school improvement becomes even more important when you’re responsible for several schools or academies at the same time. Senior leaders of MATs look for ways to use data to drive improvement at both an individual academy level and across the trust as a whole,” explains Martin. “The effectiveness of a school or group of schools will continue to be judged so the evidence should be available. Using software that brings together data from school level to multi-school or academy level can support school leaders in ensuring they have complete understanding of their schools and students, and are able to evaluate needs and implement effective intervention strategies.”
Gareth agrees that technical solutions can be crucial to SLTs in keeping abreast of how all parts of a MAT is doing. “The ability to instantly see, across all of their schools, where schools, teachers, and/or classes are struggling and having the ability – not just to highlight this, but to provide immediate assistance from other schools that are much stronger in any particular area – has the opportunity to provide profound benefits to an academy group. With creative solutions, and particularly with the addition of an online curriculum, this approach offers the possibility of bringing every school up to the same level as the best teachers available across the group.”
In September the government’s Progress 8 (P8)/Attainment 8 (A8) came into force. P8 aims to capture the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school; it’s a value-added measure where pupils’ results are compared to the actual achievements of other pupils with the same prior attainment. The P8 score is calculated for each pupil by comparing their achievement with the average A8 score of all pupils nationally with a similar starting point; it uses assessment results from the end of primary school, meaning that secondary schools even more invested in pupil outcomes at the end of Year 6.
The intention is to ensure that every child fulfils his or her potential – that no child is left behind and that no school is ‘coasting’ (keep in mind that ‘three strikes’ warning on this issue). The focus is shifted away from an interest in exam results per se to the attainment of every pupil, from the brightest to the least able. ‘What was this child capable of and did s/he achieve that?’
All the major education software houses have been developing solutions which mesh the personalised learning agenda with A8/P8 requirements; the software’s out there to let you track progress and direct and re-direct teaching to achieve the next step so that robust A8/P8 data can be gathered. Learning gaps will have to be identified and addressed as early as possible because no school will want to wait till the end of Y11 to discover that they missed a trick.
If you haven’t already done so, take a good look at your current software solutions and satisfy yourself that they are able to cope with this brave new world of personalised data – because there will be an awful lot of it. If you’re trying to manage with pre-existing, older systems you’ll almost certainly face a struggle. With cutting edge, up-to-date technical support and software recent changes can be both radical and exciting because the data gathered will put the focus squarely where it always should have been – on your pupils. Gareth puts it well. “This approach can transform a school’s culture. Not only do children learn more, teachers will find themselves marking less. We often hear that teachers are reminded of the reason they joined the teaching profession in the first place.”