Mike Bostock, an expert in school improvement, says data is the key to success
The UK has the highest variation in the impact of teaching within the OECD countries. These high levels of "Within School Variation" mean that in many schools, pupils’ chances depend on which teacher they get.
The Schools White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" places a new emphasis on the crucial role of teachers in ensuring that the nation’s children receive a high standard of education. Now that new performance tools can reveal the impact of teaching, it is time for schools to tackle variation.
In the introduction to the Schools White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ Michael Gove writes: “There is no calling more noble, no profession more vital and no service more important than teaching.” We might expect that this important recognition will translate into a new priority placed upon supporting teaching and ensuring that its effect is to provide quality learning experiences for all pupils. The problem of variation in our schools has been described as ‘Education’s Biggest Challenge”. With the new emphasis on teaching quality, tackling variation is now unavoidable.
'The fuss made about league tables pales into insignificance'
In 2005, a report from the OECD stated that ‘the UK education system has one of the highest levels of variation in student outcomes within the OECD’ and that ‘the difference in performance between departments within British schools is four times greater than that between schools’. Put simply, the fuss made about league tables pales into insignificance against the differences that pupils experience across their subjects and classes within a school. It is a key quality assurance issue that has thus far not received any great prominence. ‘The Importance of Teaching’ White Paper may help to change this.
At the BETT 2011 show we (4Matrix) will be showing the product of work that began in a London Borough school improvement service in the late 1990s and has since developed further through use in around 200 secondary schools. The approach used is to provide tools which help teachers look at the variation in the performance of groups of pupils across their subjects. The aim is to investigate "group effects" – factors which influence achievement which, once identified, can become a focus for improvement. The consequence is to be able to unpick the complex relationship that exists between teaching, learning and school provision, and to improve the diagnostic capabilities of a school in managing pupils’ learning.
We might surmise that schools with the most effective leadership will be the ones that manage and support consistent teaching and learning. The sharper focus that inspections will now place on teaching, learning and leadership can be expected to examine this inter-relationship in more detail than previously. It will be the case that schools that are pro-active in providing evidence that a school’s quality assurance processes are operating effectively will be demonstrating an important aspect of outstanding leadership.
Of course, evidence of this will lie in data and the way that it is used. ‘Data’ usually gets a bad press in the world of education. This is possibly because mention of ‘standard deviation’ or ‘confidence levels’ uncovers a statistical unease felt by many, but it is probably more to do with the fact that data is usually the stuff that is used – or misused – to judge schools and the work of teachers.
'The way forward lies in schools getting to grips with performance data'
One area where inspections still have a problem is comparing schools which have very different ability profiles, and giving full recognition to the work of those schools where success is harder to achieve. The way forward lies in schools themselves getting to grips with performance data and ensuring that it is used appropriately to provide balanced evidence of the complex relationship between teaching and learning.
The main reason that inspectors visit a school is to confirm the hypotheses deduced from analysing last year’s examination data, and to collect evidence about current standards. It is clear that inspections will always be too brief to do much more than sample the evidence about the current quality of teaching, learning and leadership. Schools that can provide their own evidence of the impact of teaching, and how they are managing variation, will be in a strong position to contribute to the judgments of an inspection.
There is already much catching up to be done with other professional walks of life in the way that schools make use of data. If I go to my doctor he might measure my blood pressure, listen to my breathing, perhaps have the nurse do an ECG, maybe send me for a blood test or an X-ray. Armed with this information he will form a diagnosis and prescribe me the correct treatment. The parallels with the work of teachers aren’t exact but it is the case that teachers are in the business of diagnosing the needs of learners and, as far as is possible, personalising the learning to match the need.
So where is the teacher’s equivalent of the doctor’s stethoscope? Too often, data is something that lives in the data manager’s office and teachers only see it as lists of grades. The way forward is for networked data systems that give greater access to data, and support teachers' research into learning effectiveness.
A worthy vision is that in the future, all teachers will have access to professional data-handling tools which encourage the investigation of hypotheses about pupil performance, and support an action-research approach to school improvement.
'Current data systems leave us largely blind to the dynamics of learning'
Current data systems leave us largely blind to the dynamics of learning, and how a school’s work impacts upon the progress and achievements of individual pupils. New data tools like 4Matrix, which can support investigations into factors which influence learning effectiveness, will help them in this task. Such tools will provide a much broader perspective on how the work of schools can be valued, by recording, analysing, measuring, diagnosing and taking action using a much smarter approach to using data.
Such a move will be a revelation in many senses of the word. Placing a spotlight on the impact of teaching could be uncomfortable in many schools if the ground hasn’t been prepared for this. The TDA/National College publication Making effective practice standard practice explains how creating a climate of "openness, trust and collegiality" can unlock teachers’ natural interest in demonstrating the impact of their work, and to see that work valued. Happily, the theme of "Learning from Within" that pervades this publication offers practical strategies for sharing the techniques used by the most effective teachers within any school. It is not always necessary to need to leave a school to go to a CPD event when evidence of effective teaching and learning lies within every school.
The government has recognised the importance of teaching in the Schools White Paper. Schools themselves can take a lead in demonstrating how they are supporting good teaching and how this is impacting on the achievements of learners. Quality assurance is one of those fundamentals that should never be left to an outside organisation. It is a story that schools should tell for themselves.
Mike Bostock has been a science teacher, school improvement adviser and Ofsted inspector. He now runs New Media Learning, a company which has developed the 4Matrix school improvement system. For more on this subject check out Mike Bostock's blog, Wrestling with the Data Genie.
BETT 2011, January 12-15
4Matrix: stand SW30