The problem with data in schools

The problem with data in schools

I’ve been reading this Schools Week’s piece on whether Management Information Systems are a good or bad thing and it annoyed me because it was such a missed opportunity. It doesn’t reach its stated destination, just meanders around the topic’s back streets and runs over some random pedestrians en route. (Note to self: I should probably see someone about my specialist-press anger management and metaphor dependency issues).

The article makes what I think is a highly questionable link between schools’ and teachers’ desire to use data and admin tools to help them to be more effective and efficient and the very real issue of workload. It quotes one teacher who feels that the demand of data entry means he doesn’t plan lessons, which is a very odd thing to say. Initial pupil-level data entry by teachers was one of the things the National Workforce Agreement of the early-2000s agreed. That’s why schools don’t expect teaching staff to do anything beyond this. What this teacher is referring to are actually his statutory duties which, if they weren’t entered into a database, would still need to be recorded on paper (probably multiple times as a result).

Is this really the high quality journalism we’ve come to expect from Schools Week? I mean, from the TES, sure, but this is Schools Week

To be clear, I come to bury MISs, not to praise them:

I’ve not found a school yet, and I’ve been to more of them than most commentators, who are delighted with their MIS. They’ve mostly reached the kind of psychological position inhabited by the badly-matched long-term married: fear, suspicion, bouts of loathing, but a broad acceptance that they’re better off together. Think the final scenes of Gone Girl.

And yet, they’re all using their MIS for the very simple reasons that it makes things easier and better. Registering pupils, contacting parents, compiling reports, accessing admin data like timetables, feeding into multiple other systems, all of this is now quantifiably saving time and allowing schools to do things which were previously impossible. Most critically, the MIS is the starting point (if not the end tool) for understanding pupils’ progress and the impact of teaching. Well used, the insights that learner data can furnish will help teachers, middle and senior leaders redirect their and pupils’ effort and support improved outcomes in a way paper-based systems never could.

So, let’s not pretend that the problem is the existence of MISs, the problem is their design and their seeming inability to move with the times. Despite the market being actually quite diverse now, with some very innovative new companies offering products in the space, the Schools Week piece only really references one of them (Arbor) and spends the rest of its time (80+%?) on SIMS.

The reason there’s an 80+% market leader is, I believe, almost entirely the result of early market dominance and subsequent inertia. Changing MIS is similar to changing bank account or moving house – traumatic, expensive, disruptive and to be avoided if at all possible. I can’t think of a technology change project in schools which affects as many users so fundamentally and as concurrently. “Welcome back to an exciting start of term – we’ve got a new MIS and everything you know is wrong.”

SIMS is very powerful, it’s just not very intuitive to use and if there’s one thing we know about technology and teachers, it’s that it’s got to be intuitive to work at a system level. We know this is a problem because of what schools opt to do about it – many have paid a lot of extra money to buy what are effectively nothing more than acceptable interfaces to their MIS. Good examples of this are Mint Class, Classroom Monitor, GroupCall Emerge, et al. These products allow ‘normal’ users to do very powerful things with the data fed from their MIS. They’re great, but they should not be needed. It is worth noting that workload reduction features strongly in their sales content.

The article references the increasing normalisation of the collection of ‘microdata’ via MIS apps (photos of work, behaviour points, etc) and posits that this contributes to workload. I suggest the author spends some time in an EYFS environment to experience how precisely the opposite is being achieved. As a teacher I spent countless hours laboriously detailing student data in things we knew then as a ‘markbook’ and a ‘register’. I would attempt some analyses of these data by checking rows for missing or late marks but they never told me anything I did not instinctively already know.

The (largely undelivered) promise of educational data systems is the power they would give the profession to be better teachers, and to help pupils become better learners – and we should collectively be pursuing that objective with fervour, not suspicion.

I’d like to see some serious journalistic effort applied to the real problem – the paucity of the tools, not a simplistic zeitgeist-friendly sideshow.

As for what a modern and fit-for-purpose education MI system should be capable of, I wrote about this a while back. We’re still a very long way from there.


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