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Debate: Data – the pitfalls

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

Three months after the death of Baby P, Ofsted praised Haringey’s services for children. Was this error caused by an over reliance on data?

John Coe

In November 2007, Ofsted slipped up very badly in Haringey. A year earlier, the inspectors had reported many examples of the authority’s good leadership and management. In addition, three months after Baby P tragically died, another inspection found that: ‘The Council’s capacity to improve its services for children and young people is good and its management of these services is good.’ Ofsted could not have been more wrong.

Underneath the data

In admitting failure, a senior HMI, Miriam Rosen, stressed the need, as she put it to get ‘underneath the data’. Data can be manipulated by those who supply it and may present a false picture; there is no substitute for getting involved with those being inspected. Clearly the truth cannot be found through data alone – it is essential to also deal with people face to face.

Ofsted’s serious failure here must lead us to question the validity of the inspectorate’s judgement of school performance, too. Has there been an over reliance therefore on the self-evaluation form that is used as the all important basis of inspection? There has been very little getting ‘underneath the data’ through observing and discussing what is really happening in our classrooms.

Social workers and teachers share an essential characteristic of their work. Both are involved, face to face, with people and children. It has been the relentless demand for accountability that has led to so much time devoted to recording what we plan to do and what we have done. A considerable amount of a teacher’s time is spent away from their children, and for leaders of schools this proportion is even higher. We must remember that every hour spent away from our children is, as far as they are concerned, a lost hour.

Ofsted failed to understand how inadequate and dangerously deceptive data can be

The dangers of data

We must be very careful about data. Computers make entering and tabulating figures absurdly easy, and then at the press of a key off they go to local and national government. This ease has led to yet more demands for data and the imposition of excessive bureaucratic systems. Best not to think about what happens at the other end. In accordance with common procedure, the data relating to the 2007 Haringey review was destroyed three months after the publication of the report. Remember, also, that figures assume an impressive authority simply by being there. No matter that they stem from purely subjective judgement. Once figures appear they become the full story – and they never are.

Much of our teaching of young children is not susceptible to precise measurement. We are dealing with the full spectrum of human growth. Only some aspects of that growth can be measured, but much else is of no less importance. The more the system demands an inappropriate precision, the more our work is distorted and weakened. Only now is it recognised that coaching for SATs has damaged schools.

Of course we are accountable and at times that accountability should be confirmed through data put alongside the personal contact typical of primary schools. But Ofsted failed to understand how inadequate and dangerously deceptive data can be. We must not make the same mistake.

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