Data and the Minotaur

Accountability is a dark, inescapable labyrinth of tunnels. No matter how bright the torch, fear always lurks in the shadows and the walls press close. At the labyrinth’s heart is a monster – the Minotaur – but not one with the body of a man and the head of a bull. This monster is a multi-faceted, shape-shifting, and disorientating beast, no less terrifying than that of Greek legend, and with an appetite no more satiable. This Minotaur feeds on data. And some schools have to feed the Minotaur more than others.

What or who is the Minotaur? for some it is Ofsted, for others it is the Local Authority, or maybe the MAT. It could be the Regional Schools Commissioner, a consultant, or even the governors. Whatever the Minotaur is, the response is the same: feed it more data. Not just statutory assessment data but data in other forms too: teacher assessment, test scores, comments, written feedback, marking, lists of highlighted objectives, photographic evidence. All is consumed by the Minotaur.

It has to be said that Ofsted have shifted a long way on data with a specific statement in the handbook relating to tracking:

Ofsted does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format. Such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.

But follow any thread on twitter regarding assessment, data and tracking (a regular topic and one that has dominated the last 24 hours) and it won’t be long before someone claims that an inspector asked for data in a certain form, usually to prove progress. Last week I spoke to two Headteachers that were adamant that their inspections would have been a lot more difficult without the progress tracking points generated by their particular system. Yes, this is anecdotal, but these anecdotes appear in vast numbers. Have they all got the wrong end of the stick? Or are they being disingenuous? And besides, if the data is not generated for Ofsted then it’s done to appease another face of the Minotaur. There is no escape.

The greatest tragedy is that there is now general awareness that much of the data we feed the Minotaur is inaccurate – meaningless even. Vast amounts of time and money are wasted and we have come to accept this as unavoidable collateral damage. A necessary sacrifice. And in those schools that are most vulnerable – perhaps already judged RI or told that they are at risk of being so – the response is depressingly familiar: rather than decrease the amount of data that is collected in order to concentrate more effort on teaching and learning, the demand for data increases as does the number of ‘data drops’. ‘Measure more, more often’ becomes the school’s mantra, mistaken in the belief that data can prove anything if they collect enough of it; that it will somehow result in improvement, and, for a while at least, sate the Minotaur.

Saddest of all are those schools that openly admit that their systems are no longer fit for purpose, that what they are doing is wrong, and what they are asking their teachers to collect and record is a waste of time. And yet they continue on that path, often increasing the demands, watching as teachers and senior leaders buckle under the pressure, seemingly unaware that learning will suffer and all efforts are ultimately in vain. In these situations a common theme has emerged. In response to the question “why not change?”, the schools state that they can’t until they are out of the situation they are in. Think about that for a minute: schools feel that they can’t begin to get things right until the pressure is off. Until that day – when they finally have some breathing space – they will just have to carry feeding on the Minotaur in full knowledge that what they are doing is quite likely damaging every aspect of the school.

It is time to tackle this monster. In the legend Theseus killed the Minotaur by entering its lair with a sword. Our Minotaur is perhaps too big to be dispatched by a single person, and its labyrinth far too complex.

But we can starve it.

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