In data do we trust

 The Department for Education in England has recently added a new feature to its website. This allows for the comparison of schools based on the data they hold (http://bit.ly/pOwgg2 ).  Users of the site can now enter a location, then choose up to 5 schools which are then presented in tabular format to allow comparison of performance.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ACSL) did not welcome this development, pointing to the fact data can be out of date, and it is unwise to choose a school in this way (http://bit.ly/oyEwD9). Mumsnet did however welcome the ‘simplification’ of the data available, which is strange as comparison has done nothing to simplify the data from what I can see.

The simple fact is that we as nation are in love with data  We’ve never had so much of it, it’s never been so easy to get hold of it and we demand more and more of it to drive our consumer behaviours. Gratified  by the ease of checking out facts and figures on the internet, we now crave statistics and relish comparative tools such as this one. They have already invaded our consumer behaviour as price comparison sites for insurance, utilities and finance have flourished.  Data seduce us with their simplicity, they give us certainty delivering cold hard figures on which to build a strong basis for our assumptions so what better way to compare schools than see them ranked alongside each other in this way?

There are a few reasons why we need to be wary of data. Firstly will people, particularly parents, understand how to interpret the data? Advice on making sense of this morass of figures seems thin on the ground. The DfES will explain what individual items are, but a strategy for overall comparison does not appear to be given.  Perhaps this is because the department feels the figures are perfectly transparent, that there is no need of a mediating layer of interpretation, that we can just read along the rows and the relative worth of each school will pop out as obviously as the  best price for insuring our Ford Mondeo does.  Or perhaps it is because a grid to overlay these statistics and produce a final answer as to which is the best school is simply not available, so to attempt to publish one on a public forum would by its very action lead to people pulling it apart.

Data sometimes need health warnings attached, or at least some indication that they could tell a misleading story.  The image for this blog posting is of the schools nearest to me in Bolton. As expected from a leafy suburb, they all perform much better than the national average. I think many users of the site would read across the top line (percentage of those achieving level 4 and above in English and Maths) and use that as the ‘money’ figure, the basis for the ultimate comparison. But if you dig down the table, some anomalies to challenge the headline figure begin to emerge.  But the real issue is that the figures are telling you the performance for the entire year group of pupils, every individual student has been squeezed into a box to sum them all up.  Prospecting parents don’t care about the entire cohort, they will care about their particular son or daughter.  What the data cannot tell you is how the child will fare in the school relative to their ability and disposition for learning. Even if you use the Contextual Value Added Scores (CVA) (which are themselves something of a minefield to interpret meaningfully), you still have to realise that you are working with figures created by averaging all the students together. Some would argue that this is compelling way of comparing schools, but in terms of making predictions for how well a particular pupil will fare in that school, there are serious doubts as to the data’s efficacy.

Finally what this data can never tell you is what kind of organisation a school is on a human level. Will your son or daughter be happy there, will they flourish in an environment which supports them, or have to endure under a regime which is most interested in pushing its way up these league tables? How far does the school cater for the needs of its pupils beyond the narrow confines of the straitjacket of metrics? These are important questions to be asking. Despite what the bureaucrats and the politicians tell us, eager to peddle a sanitised, industrialised Fordist version of education where performance is reducible to black and white figures on a page, schooling is a messy, emotional, human business with blurry edges and fuzzy logic.  You can’t get this into a database of statistics, but you do need it to make some kind of decision on whether  school is good or not.

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