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Sam Blyth from Canvas: "We need to see the successes of schools using data promoted in the same way as we have in the business world"

When data is king and Ofsted is the king maker

Sam Blyth from Canvas reports on how teachers can make an evidence-led system work for them

Posted by Stephanie Broad | April 16, 2016 | Teaching

The last round of Ofsted inspections saw a three per cent increase in number of schools awarded 'good' or 'outstanding' ratings. With thriving schools using their Ofsted grades as a powerful marketing tool, and even news of house price increases being linked to improving results, it’s understandable that teachers across the country are feeling the pressure to maintain standards this time around. Academies in particular are feeling the strain, with recent policy to transform all schools into academies putting additional scrutiny on start-up or converter schools. 

Numerous reports have brought to attention the stress felt by academies in the run up to inspections, and two thirds (65%) of teaching staff say that Ofsted has resulted in an increased workload over the last five years. A prevalent concern is the need to produce large amounts of evidence in order to improve the chance of a favourable rating. Data, Ofsted confirms, is crucial in “demonstrating consistency in performance and the trends of improvement or decline.” But with no clear guidance on how to present this data  - “there is no expected format for presenting performance and pupil-tracking” - the requirement can leave schools feeling pressured and confused.

The private sector has been loudly promoting the benefits of collecting and using data to improve customer service for some time, with the world’s biggest companies such as Facebook and Google using information on user habits to build and serve new products. So, with these very public successes of a data rich economy, is there an argument that schools should embrace this number-driven approach to measuring the impact of teaching? Should, ask some industry commentators, the requirement for continuing performance analysis and tracking, be seen not as a burden but as a tool to improve teaching and learning? 

While we know that 78% of all teachers believe that doing well in Ofsted inspections calls for a continual understanding of their students' performance, the statistic that 83% are frustrated with how long it takes to collate data for reporting is cause for concern. If data collection is seen as a chore, required just to pass or fail an inspection, teachers will never see the potential benefits of using this information in schools. 

Technology is one way of easing the burden. Teachers who use platforms such as Canvas report that they can collate reports in minutes rather than hours, speed up curriculum planning, and improve teacher-student feedback. But more than this, technology can help to analyse the data collected, revealing spikes in engagement levels or even the time and place in which students prefer to learn. By using a clever learning management system, or online monitoring tool, schools can look at even the smallest changes in performance or interaction, and change teaching style accordingly. 

We need to see the successes of schools using data promoted in the same way as we have in the business world. Using information effectively can transform the way that teachers teach and students learn by making the invisible – visible. However, its impact relies on how the data is analysed and how it’s applied. Collecting data simply to present to a higher authority will not allow teachers to learn from what it reveals. The continual tracking of student performance should be empowering - letting staff see how the way they’re teaching is impacting upon their students, and how any changes they make can alter the status quo.

Important, too, is training. For teaching staff used to operating in an offline world, the requirement to digitally analyse student behaviours can be daunting. Teachers need to be shown the benefits of looking again at a numbers-based approach to teaching, and how to best use the information they collect. 

So, then, perhaps the time has come to look again at data in schools. And if teachers should view data analysis differently, then so perhaps should Ofsted. Instead of just looking at the evidence schools have gathered and what it tells them about a school’s performance, they may look at how schools use data to improve and develop teaching. 

And, just as academies have led the way in the past, their successes paving the way for a government policy of conversion, there is a significant opportunity for academy schools to blaze a trail once again.

Canvas will be present at The Academies Show, London, 20th April 2016    

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