Jane Golightly gives advice on how to keep your priorities in sight when using data to focus on your school improvement

I got lost this week. It shouldn’t have happened as I was on a road I know well. However, I wasn’t paying attention and before I realised what had happened I was on a different road going in the wrong direction. Has this ever happened to you? Possibly not when you are driving but perhaps you have experienced going in the wrong direction when you realise that you don’t seem to be making the progress you expected when you review improvement priorities. Your school isn’t alone in this. It is all too easy to start off with the right priorities but, for a variety of reasons you become distracted and end up taking a different path altogether and not necessarily the right one. So, rather than keep on going to see where you end up, do what the SAT Nav voice says and turn around as soon as possible and get back on the right route! To help us do this we are going to think about our use of data.

Data for direction
At this time of the year, the analysis and interpretation of data is firmly on our minds. With statutory target setting requirements and preparations for the school improvement partner’s visit underway, it seems timely to remind ourselves about why we place an emphasis on making best use of data. Analysis and interpretation of data is a fundamental part of school self-evaluation. We all want to raise standards and this means improving the learning and teaching for every child. To do this we need to look at data from a range of sources, analyse it thoroughly and take action as a result of our analysis. We know this is not just a once-a-year activity.

Regular monitoring and tracking of progress, including pupil progress meetings and regular evaluations should ensure that:

  • children are on track to achieve their targets
  • we stay focused on our priorities
  • we keep working to ensure that every child makes the best possible progress.

Part 2 of the DCSF ‘Guidance For Local Authorities and Schools on Setting Education Performance Targets for 2011’ is particularly relevant for schools and has helpful advice and guidance on the target setting process.

No-one wants to be working in a school that is data rich and action poor. If you feel that that you are not seeing the results of your work and that there is a tendency in your school to drift from priorities, I would like to propose that it could be because of weaknesses in getting data off the paper or hard drive and into action in the classroom. This means every adult knowing the part they have to play. School leaders have been heard to say that managing this can be one of their biggest challenges. So, if you are reading this and thinking, ‘Yes, that’s my problem’, I would like you to reflect on the following question.

What do the leadership and management of data in your school say to others?
At first sight this looks a straightforward question but dig deeper and you will discover your response tells you much about practice in your school.

As a leadership team what messages are you giving to staff either overtly or covertly? Would your staff say data is an important contributor to school improvement, a hoop to be jumped through or even possibly something they can ignore, because once the autumn term target setting meeting is over no-one really follows things through?

In effective schools in a range of contexts, leaders give out powerful messages about the part data has to play in improving the education of all children. There is no misunderstanding by staff about the expectations that are placed on them and their responsibilities and contribution in this area. For example, staff know that data analysis must inform learning and teaching. In these schools leaders bring clarity, rigour and cohesion to monitoring and evaluating the impact of the analysis on the provision for children.

Key to getting successful action in the classroom is holding staff accountable for the progress of every child. You should expect teachers to set challenging and aspirational targets for children and you need to know the progress of each child so that you can challenge where targets do not seem sufficiently aspirational or progress is not good enough. This accountability goes on through the year when you continue to challenge staff about the rate of progress, particularly for vulnerable groups or those children whose progress needs to be accelerated. I know that holding people to account isn’t easy but it is a significant aspect of the leadership role. If you have taken over a school where this practice is not the norm you may already be in the middle of this process. Don’t get disheartened if progress is slow or you are meeting resistance. You know that in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for children all staff must be engaged in the process and have the right attitudes to their part in securing improvement.

School leaders should be regularly talking to teachers about what the data is telling them about the children in their class. Ask and expect staff to know about the data for every child and have the information that will alert you to potential vulnerability.

You also provide professional challenge and support and base your challenge on evidence-based assessment. This challenge to staff needs to be on pupils’ progress and attainment across the ability range. And where you see any of the following you take immediate action.

  • Slow or no progression
  • Low expectations
  • Pupil data not making a difference to learning and teaching

In this way leaders can be sure that they will not be seduced to going in the wrong direction. It will be easier to stay on track because all staff will be working as a team to fulfil their part in achieving the priorities for the benefit of all children in the school.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education