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Education: Prayerful data

01 February 2013

Statistics can paint a helpful picture of what is happening in schools, says Huw Thomas

WHEN Hugh Jackman sings, in a crescendo, that he is Jean Valjean of Les Misérables, he lifts himself from the character of Prisoner 24601, the name by which we first met him.

The notion that we are free people, and not just numbers, lies behind an aversion that some people feel towards data, and the way in which it drives so much thinking and planning in education. Governors fall asleep, unions complain, and staff feel oppressed by a tyranny of numbers encapsulated in the adage: "Weighing a pig don't make it no heavier."

This aversion can, in part, be traced to the ignorance of league tables, but has become even more laden by OFSTED inspectors' monomaniacal dependence on the RAISEonline reports, issued about each school.

There are inspectors who buck this trend, and look at the school; but there are also those whose opening gambit of: "Well, if your data is poor . . ." becomes a catchphrase thereafter: "If your data is poor, teaching must be poor"; "If your data is low, the curriculum must be . . ." You reach a point with these inspectors where you stop asking even how their lunch was, for fear of: "If the data is poor, my sandwich must have been . . .", etc.

AND yet there is a case for seeing data as a precious instrument, an act of love and a place of great holiness. The secret lies not in the "dots", but in the people who constitute them.

In the classic film The Third Man, Harry Lime is a dubious racketeer who takes the hero on a ride on a Ferris wheel, which takes them improbably high over post-war Vienna. When challenged about the deaths he has caused, Harry opens the door, and they look down at the people walking, like ants, below: "Victims?" he asks. "Don't be melodramatic. . . Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever?"

From on high, the tendency of data to turn people into dots results in a national agenda that pushes for targets and levels, understandably unable to factor in the particular circumstances of the school and its children.

It cuts both ways, however. Those who are sniffy about data - who shun targets, and express aversion to number-crunching of key-stage results - seem to forget that these numbers are about aspiration. Every percentage rise, nationally and locally, symbolises a school that has raised its game. Every such rise is made up of children where the school pushed for that bit more. Each of those children learned something extra to make that progress - figured out long division, or learned how to paragraph a text.

I have experienced the hammering that data can bring to a school and its leader, but that has not diminished my recognition that the dots are individual learners, taking steps that will be life-changing. How good is that? To the extent that data raises the life chances of children to become what God intended, I would declare it holy.

IN 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes of love and growth, from seeing - as in a poor-quality mirror - to knowing fully, "even as I have been fully known". Good assessment is like that: it seeks to see the full person, and does so in love. There is a prayerful use for data.

In Sheffield, we engaged recently in a programme of governor education "The Ostrich Position", specifically targeted at those governors who hate data. They bring their RAISEonline document along, pristine, and spend two hours working through it.

There is a fascinating tipping point that comes when people see their own school more clearly in these figures. For example, the insight that, as a school, our girls tend to do much better than our boys in writing; this is the sort of data that raises questions.

If the answer is that the boys need writing topics of more interest to them, then data has done its job.

Huw Thomas is the Director of Education for Sheffield diocese.

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