Part 1: The information that matters

by Loic Menzies, 06 June 2022
The information that matters

On moving to a new school trust, Jamie knew that something had to change. The teachers were at their wits end and drowning in data, so Jamie decided to launch a data amnesty. As part of this she encouraged staff to be honest about what data served no purpose and could be ditched. The tricky question though, was what to keep.

What are the barriers?

One answer to the question of what information to keep collecting is to focus on data that responds to a ‘hypothesis’. In other words, if we want to pare back unnecessary data collection, we should start with the important questions that teachers and other practitioners need answers to. We can then work back from there to identify what information will be useful, prioritising and taking research-informed best-bets along the way. For example, Jane recently took on a role in a large MAT and for her, the key question was “can these pupils read?” This was driven by the hypothesis that the reason a large number of pupils were not progressing was because they lacked the required reading level. 

In other contexts, it’s different questions that take priority. Ben is the leader of a community hub for pre-school children and their families. He hypothesised that the inequity in his setting took its roots in early childhood experiences. He therefore wanted to find out more about what happened to pupils in their first 1001 days of life.

Jamie, Jane and Ben all shared their reasoning with us during a recent roundtable, and it was clear that their decisions about what data to collect were based on prioritising among a set of hypotheses about barriers to learning. Such hypotheses need to be informed by both research and experience but there are also two other factors at play.

What can I take action on?

The reason roundtable attendees’ wanted access to certain types of information was that they believed “if we understand it, we can do something about it”. Given that different practitioners’ have different spheres of influence, what’s most relevant will differ between sectors and practitioners. Compare for example Ben’s situation, running a family centre - which works with parents in the very first years of their child’s life, and Jamie’s large group of schools serving older pupils. Practitioners therefore need to ask themselves “what will I do differently as a result of this information”? If the data won’t provide answers that impact on practice, it’s probably not worth collecting.

What do I value?

Problem definition is deeply subjective in education; some people see educational inequity through the lens of unequal job prospects, others see unequal access to cultural capital as the main issue. Meanwhile others focus on inequalities in current, or future wellbeing.

How practitioners define the problems they are trying to solve is therefore deeply intertwined with their values, which in turn affects what information they prioritise. I will return to what public policy theory can tell us about problem definition in my next blog, but at an institutional level, leaders values shape what problems they focus on and therefore, what information is relevant. For example, when Jamie and her school emerged into a post pandemic environment after their data-amnesty, they decided to prioritise information about attendance and confidence levels. They therefore turned to an assessment tool that is billed as taking “the guesswork out of understanding why pupils may be reluctant, disengaged or even disruptive… by sensitively exploring social and emotional wellbeing.” In contrast to this focus on immediate diagnosis, another attendee was interested in their group of school’s long term impact on social mobility. They were therefore trialling an approach that ties together government data on education and employment outcomes, hoping this would help to validate or challenge their trust’s strategy. 

Values don’t just shape what data is collected, but also how it’s collected. In order to remain true to his ethos of community empowerment Ben opted for open, qualitative questions, asking families “what do you think we need to know about your community, what do you think is relevant”. He believed this reinforced his centre’s message that “we have confidence in your insights and your understanding of what matters in your community”

Data-collection in education often collapses into meaningless compliance. Recasting it as ‘information gathering’, and deciding where to focus practitioners’ scarce time by using meaningful, actionable hypotheses, explicitly rooted in values, could help to counteract that. 

This is part one of a 3-part blog series asking, 'How can information help teachers, youth practitioners and leaders map the way to educational equity?' which forms part of our Mapping The Way discussion series with Loic Menzies.

You can join the conversation by following along on Twitter using using the hashtag #MappingTheWay and tagging @LoicMnzs and @AssessNetwork! Plus, you can sign up for our next webinar and add your voice.

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