A shaggy dog story

Once, whilst out running in the Cotswold Hills, I was approached through the woods by a family with three terriers. Two of the dogs were out in front, jostling for position, neither particularly interested in me; and bringing up the rear several metres behind the family was a much older one, ambling along at his own pace. I exchanged greetings with the humans and the old dog interrupted his study of the moss growing on a drystone wall to eye me suspiciously as I ran past.

I headed on up the path towards the top of the hill but after a short distance I became aware of a noise behind me and stopped to find the old terrier right on my heels. He stopped too, and stared up at me with a look that seemed to say, ‘now what?’. “You’re going the wrong way” I explained, pointing back towards his family now some distance away. “That way, go on”. He looked decidedly indifferent and didn’t move. Pointing again I tried being more assertive “Go on! Off you go! Shoo!”.

I turned to run on and the old terrier followed me. “Look, you can’t follow me, you’ll lose your owners”. I clapped my hands and he did that dog thing of leaping sideways and barking excitedly as if it were a game. Off I went again, and back he came again. By this time his owners had disappeared round a bend in the path and I was left alone with their dog.

Getting desperate, I bent down, picked him up, turned him 180 degrees, placed him back down, and gave him a gentle push.


I tried again. He definitely wasn’t budging. With a sigh, I picked him up, tucked him under my arm like a rugby ball, and was about to start chasing down the now long since disappeared owners when I became aware of a noise behind me. I turned to see two very bemused looking people coming down the path from the top of the hill. One was laughing with tears in her eyes; the other, just about managing to hold it together, asked “Excuse me, what exactly are you doing with our dog?”

So, what can we learn from this shaggy dog story? Well, other than the fact that terriers will easily outwit me any day of the week, it just goes to show that the obvious answer is not always the right one, and sometimes the most seemingly solid and irrefutable indicators can point you in entirely the wrong direction. Consequently, we need to be very careful placing too much faith in data and should never make inferences based on single pieces of evidence, no matter how robust they appear.

Bear this in mind when judging school performance on the basis of numbers published in the performance tables.

Maybe the school is heading the right way after all.

*This post was originally published in the TES in July 2017.

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