How did that happen? Information shapes behaviour

by Loic Menzies, 30 March 2022
Hands selecting different sections of a pie chart

Once upon a time, I wanted to check a guide to school league tables that colleagues and I had written for Schools Week with a policy maker, to make sure we’d explained it all accurately. As it happened, we’d got the content right, but the government official I spoke to had one request: they wanted me to remove the reference to ‘league tables’ from the title because they insisted the government published no such thing. There were just ‘performance measures’. 

As soon as any data is published, people will use it in a plethora of ways. People will ‘sort’ spreadsheets using different fields. The media construct league tables and some teachers and parents will avoid certain schools - for example those deemed ‘too challenging’ because of data on pupil characteristics. 

As one senior policy maker (not the one urging me towards ‘rightspeak’) put it:

So we want data - we want to have these tables. The department will do them in alphabetical order and then somebody will click on the Excel spreadsheet - they'll come in and rank stuff. When we release lots of data out into the system we see how it changes the system, how it changes what's there. If you're a parent who doesn't want to send your kids to a school that's got different races in and so on, they will say ‘let me choose my school based on that - I'm going to move next door to the other school’. Sometimes the information actually creates real problems in real life.”

The drive to keep information simple through a single high-profile metric can heighten its distortive impact. Extensive research demonstrates how schools respond to overly narrow, high-stakes accountability, whether by ‘gaming’ and thinning out the curriculum, changing their teaching methods, or ‘off rolling’. For this reason, more data isn’t always better, and simple isn’t always best.

Nonetheless, a balance needs to be struck between accessibility and nuance, and simplicity and accessibility may need to be compromised in the interests of better effects. In fact, one attendee at our roundtable admitted: 

Key Stage Five data is really, really good, because no one understands it... So when Ofsted come in, you can explain the narrative”

On the other hand it’s important to acknowledge that publishing data is one of the most useful levers in the policy-makers toolkit. Previous government’s have been successful in driving change by removing ‘equivalent GCSEs’, from league tables, introducing the phonics screening check and creating the Ebacc.

The previous blogs in this series have set out a range of areas in which attention to different sources of information and data might yield benefits for policy makers. I have emphasised the need to capture all young people’s experiences - not just those at average or threshold levels; I’ve set out the need for insight into different elements of their lives including the myriad factors that shape their educational outcomes; and I’ve argued that we need to take into account opportunities as well as achievements. In some cases these shifts would involve looking at new or different datasets, in others, the information is already there but the focus needs to shift. However alongside any such changes, three important considerations need to be kept in mind.

  • a) What information do policy makers need in order to make decisions and steer the system?
  • b) What information do they need in order to monitor standards and hold it to account? 
  • c) What information will yield desired shifts in behaviour? 

These four blogs have focused on the macro level - in other words, information that is needed at a system level. However this is not the only way data is used, and different information is valuable at different levels. In our next roundtable and webinar, we will be moving to the micro level, by asking a similar set of questions regarding what information practitioners across the education and youth sector should be looking at. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts as part of that, so please do sign up to our next webinar. And join the conversation on Twitter using using the hashtag #MappingTheWay - make sure you also tag @LoicMnzs and @AssessNetwork!

This is the final instalment of a four-part blog series setting out the key considerations to come from our first Mapping the Way event with Loic Menzies. Parts one and two focused on the need to look at young people across the distribution and how building a fuller picture of young people’s lives can inform more nuanced approaches to improving outcomes. Part three explores why the supply of opportunities beyond the classroom is important, and how we can shape education to unlock them.

The aim for the series is to build an incredibly rich body of thinking, which participants will have played a critical role in helping to develop. To get involved, catch up with the latest event over on our YouTube channel and sign up for the next interactive webinar when you can get involved in the conversation.

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