School Data: How to Develop a Positive Data Culture in Your School
When was the last time you had a conversation about data in your school?
Or when was the last time you thought about your data? I’m willing to hazard a guess that it was at some point today.
Schools produce vast amounts of data, even the smallest settings create near endless amounts. But have you considered the culture your setting has towards data use?
One of the joys of working with data is that it is objective, there in black and white. Whereas, a culture is more subjective, its more in the ether. You know it’s there, but you can’t always put your finger on it. You can see evidence of it through behaviours or interactions, but culture can be harder to quantify or monitor.
When we think of what makes a ‘culture’ we often think of attitudes or approaches or mindsets. Well, what attitude do staff in your school have towards the use of data and how does this impact on the data culture of your setting?
There are numerous articles (Lasater et al., 2019: Parcerisa, 2020: Ball, 2003), stretching back decades, reporting that teachers tend to hold negative attitudes towards the use of data for accountability within schools. Teachers and SLTs have used some pretty hostile language towards attainment data; ‘a tyranny of numbers’ and ‘terror of performativity’ (Ball, 2003). We know that the use of attainment data to manage teachers’ performance can have a detrimental impact on the morale, well- being and sense of self-efficacy (Lasater et al., 2019: Parcerisa, 2020). But it has to be done.
The production of any kind of data requires a surprising amount of work hours, from the IT technician, who ensures the machines have the soft and hardware, to the administration staff, who chase up missing details from parents and carers, down to staff who enter pupil exam results and grades, often on two or more programs. To prevent negative attitudes building from the start, systems and infrastructure must be reliable and robust. All staff must have access to the data and 'data gatekeepers' or hierarchies should not be encouraged.
We have covered the importance of integrated systems and ‘real time’ data in another blog, but it is worth mentioning, it is crucial that the programmes used are fit for purpose and staff have a comprehensive understanding how to use the software to glean insights for action. With so much time and energy committed to the production of data, it is key schools facilitate the right environment where it can be shared and made sense of, so it can be used in the most effective manner. This will support ‘buy-in' from staff.
Data is used for a multitude of things in and around school and we break things down to the minutia. However, if we think of data serving three primary purposes- to support decision making (often with allocation of resources), to support pupil attainment (improving teaching practice) and to hold staff accountable. There will be some overlap here between the three areas, but ultimately, we should be using data at the very core of all the decision-making process. Schools are increasingly becoming data driven organisations and this can't be ignored. A question you may wish to ask is to what extent does your school have a data driven culture?
Adam Levy, Head of Digital Solutions at Comptacenter, stresses the importance of using data for decision making and this is key, “I think analytics and data driven insights are going to be critical.” Furthermore, Vicky Merrick at Archway Learning Trust, has found that some schools are still lacking the ‘joined up thinking’ of using education data, such as pupil attainment and progress data, and business data well, in order to improve outcomes, she elaborates on this here, in one of our session recordings from the EdTech Summit.
There are important debates occurring around responsible and ethical data use. Schools and institutions need have a clear dialogue with parents and carers as to who is collecting what data and why? Who takes ownership of data can be a tricky subject. David Hayes, former Chief Data Officer at the Open University, is an advocate for data ownership and that learners should have ownership of their data, the debate around data governance is explained really well in a session recording from the EdTech Summit – available here.
In light of the time and effort spent on producing data and the potential negative attitudes staff may hold, it is key to foster an environment where data is not seen simply as a tool for accountability. There are numerous actions leadership can take to support staff’s engagement with the process of producing and analysing data, outlined below.
Much like developing wider organisational culture, leadership has an important role to play in the establishment and development of a data culture. Lasater et al., 2020 and Abrams et al. (2021) found that the beliefs, values and ideologies of a school’s leaders impacts on the approaches used to make sense of data. This suggests that leaders need to give fair consideration to how they present themselves with regards to exploring and analysing data. Be the change you want to see in terms of data use and behaviours.
The process of 'sense making' is turning your raw data into insights, creating the narrative behind it, and making it come to life. Having raw data is one thing, the process of explaining it and turning it into actionable points is another. Here, leaders play a pivotal role as their actions or inactions set the tone for the rest of the staff. Senior leaders who model the behaviours they want to see within their staff are able to set clear expectations with regards to sense making. Getting involved with this will have unforeseen benefits.
Vicky Merrick echoes Lasater et al.’s, 2020 work calling for ‘safe spaces’ when staff collectively interrogate attainment data. This means that staff, regardless of their status within the school, are able to freely and openly share their thoughts and opinions, without negative repercussions.
Like the production of data is a collective effort, the sense making and agreed actions from data must be a team effort also. Involving staff, at as many staff as feasibly possible, will support in clarifying the objectives for all to understand. What is more, it will support staff development with regards to analytic skills. Giving staff allocated time for analysing data is crucial, this will support collaborative practice and prevent work being conducted in silos.
A positive and strong data culture is characterised by having explicit expectations around data use, supportive systems (both computer and physical), plentiful resources and safe environments. It is developed over time (Lasater et al., 2020). An ideal data culture should be built around improvement and not accountability and support improved data literacy amongst staff.
There a numerous published papers on data use in this special edition from the journal ‘Studies in Educational Evaluation’.
Article Written by Alex Wallace, Content Producer for GovNet and the Schools & Academies Show.
Alex has over ten years’ experience teaching in primary education, a Masters in ‘Education Practice’ and is currently reading for a Masters in ‘Leadership in Education’.