BLOG: Building a culture of professionalism: making data work for us

In our second blog in a series on ‘building a culture of professionalism’, Michael Pain considers the use of data in enhancing both accountability and profession-led improvement. The first blog in the series (on the role of CPD) can be read here.

Michael Pain, November 2013

What sets the best apart from the rest? That is a question high-performers, including those in sport, business, and most other walks of life, constantly ask of themselves. I have a theory, and it’s this: data. Data is now everywhere, each one of us has access to more data than we could ever have imagined just ten years ago. Indeed, we are drowning in it. My theory though isn’t about accessing data, it’s about capturing the right data and applying the right kind of mindset when we decide what (if anything) to do with it.

In education, as in other sectors, data is now a firm fixture of the landscape. Ever since the introduction of testing, league tables and OFSTED in the late eighties and early nineties, data has become a fact of life for all schools.

My belief, however, is that education set off on the wrong foot with data. For many years data has been more about ‘we now know what we did last summer’ rather than ‘what can we do before next summer?’ It has historically been to very little use when considering the core business of schools, in essence:  achieving the very best educational outcomes for the pupils they serve today. Don’t misunderstand my point, summative measures and accountability are critical – the public needs to be confident that public services can perform, not just plan to perform. But the mindset around data needs to shift even further from an emphasis on summative data, to one where data is harnessed much more for formative purposes.

My theory stems from the fact that the best schools are already really good at this. They know themselves well. They not only live and breathe data throughout the year, but they seek to develop and agree their own highly aspirational (but achievable) measures and standards – not just reflecting the central frameworks, levels and targets (as important as they are in a high stakes system). They develop a set of metrics that deeply resonate with their moral purpose and ambitions for pupils, and have high value for informing their practice as professionals. As a result, they develop ‘ownership’ of the data and they use it to powerful effect in creating a culture of accountability that is primarily focused on informing the process of continuous improvement within and indeed across schools. As Christine Gilbert says, when discussing how accountability can encourage a culture of self-improvement within and between schools, “accountability is not just the preserve of government, its agencies and Ofsted,…..we need to encourage debate about the ways in which accountability can be better shaped to support not only a school-led, self-improving system, but also to serve the public interest.” (1)

So schools need to be highly mindful of existing public accountability measures (of course!). However, they can also, through their professional expertise and autonomy, enhance the nature of the data they capture, not only for the purpose of accountability (so that it is not only more insightful and responsive to public expectations), but so that it serves leaders and teachers well in their pursuit of further improvement and professional dialogue and development. This is where the mindset shifts for leaders and teachers from what Gilbert describes as ‘invariably negative, mechanistic and stressful’ to a position that generates a strong sense of professionalism. Data is still used (to coin Barber’s much quoted statement) to ‘mandate adequacy’ – but the emphasis is on data as an essential tool for ‘unleashing greatness’ through the intelligence it provides for identifying both areas for improvement and existing practices to inform such improvement. So the mandatory data, that which serves the central accountabilities is only the beginning for these schools. The focus on data is now seen through the paradigm of professionalism, with leaders and teachers overtly shaping and expanding data and accountability within their own context so that it underpins efforts to continuously improve educational practices and outcomes – including through the informed delivery of continuous professional learning and improvement. This is critical to creating and reinforcing a strong culture of professionalism. But it needs care if it is to be achieved…

The role of professionals in influencing and enhancing the purpose of data is key here. For example, as Andy Hargreaves highlights in a recent policy paper, in the US system: Targets, indicators, and metrics have been narrow rather than broad, inaccurately defined and problematically applied. Test score data have been collected and reported over too short timescales that make them unreliable for purposes of accountability, or reported long after the student populations to which they apply have moved on, so that they have little or no direct value for improvement purposes. Data driven improvement/accountability in the U.S. has focused on what is easily measured rather than on what is educationally valued. It holds schools and districts accountability for effective delivery of results, but without holding system leaders accountable for providing the resources and conditions that are necessary to secure those results.” (2) Teachers and leaders must be active participants in the debate around data, not only by constantly generating evidence and understanding around the kind of data required to inform improvement – that which is educationally valued, but to be actively demonstrating and promoting the impact of such an approach and disseminating its use across the system.

 If we are to ensure a much more intelligent approach to data here, it must be the case that teachers and leaders work collectively, using their autonomy and freedom so that rather than simply working for the data, they make data work for them. That requires leaders and teachers not only to have high aspirations and a clear dialogue and shared understanding of the standards they set (and why they are setting them), but also high expectations about what is measured so that it informs their own professional knowledge and practice and best enables them to work towards those standards (even if it leads to uncomfortable scrutiny and the highlighting of weaknesses). It also requires a strong sense of openness within and across schools about data and a readiness to provide and receive respectful challenge, a commitment to confronting the brutal facts so that meaningful and substantial improvement is possible, and a willingness to share best practices to support others beyond the individual school. As Hargreaves says, what is needed are: “strong professional learning communities in which all members share collective responsibility for all students’ achievement and bring to bear shared knowledge of their students, as well all the relevant statistical data on their students’ performance.” Trust, respect and a generosity of spirit are essential here – each is generated by effective school leadership. The profession needs to be highly effective at holding itself to account for these very processes, behaviours and values if they are to be sustained for the long term.

As I have acknowledged, the shift towards greater professional ownership of data is taking place. Formative data is at the heart of many schools’ work. But is there real ownership of data that goes beyond the essential but limited use of traditional (often central) measures? Is the data captured timely enough and is it of a nature that serves to inform leaders and teachers knowledge and wisdom of professional practice? Does it, for instance, capture the views and feedback of a wide range of stakeholders, including children, at an early stage so that it has time to be reflected on and responded to? Is it moderated and subject to sufficient scrutiny?  Is it underpinning a culture of professional discourse that is defined by constructive challenge and leads to improved practices and outcomes for pupils? The emerging examples of peer to peer review and audits, by organisations and groups such as Challenge Partners, the National Teacher Enquiry Network and some teaching school alliances, provide a helpful reference point. So too do the randomised control trials being undertaken by some schools for understanding the best strategies for closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and the rest. The lesson study approach for improving classroom practice and the increasing use of joint practice development within CPD are also prime examples of how wider data – mainly of a qualitative nature – is being captured and used to inform a continuous process of professional development, with a direct impact on pupils’ learning. This is not externally mandated. The mindset around data is shifting fast.

Two changes in policy are likely to focus minds even more here. The abolition of key stage levels and the new secondary ‘progress’ performance measures will provide a context in which leaders and teachers are required to challenge themselves and each other on how they use data to assess and inform continuous progress for children, whilst at the same time ensuring it feeds into the improvement and refinement of their own practice. The NFER have stated that in relation to the abolition of levels: “schools risk a return to assessment with no agreed reference points, leading to uncertainty about standards of pupil achievement. To achieve a shared understanding of assessment…novice and expert teachers need to develop a culture and discourse of high quality assessment through their careers.” This in itself will require teachers and leaders to ensure the intelligent use of data to inform the progress and achievement of children – but it also requires teachers and leaders to enter into that clear discourse – through professional learning communities – about what data they capture and how they use it to shape and improve upon their own practice in a world where there is less prescription that before. Where teachers and leaders are sharing the collective responsibility for this, we are well on our way to achieving a strong culture of professionalism.

Michael Pain is Director at Forum Education, a strategy & communications consultancy for the education sector.


(1) Towards a self-improving system: the role of school accountability. Christine Gilbert & National College, 2012.

(2) Data-driven improvement and accountability. Andy Hargreaves & Henry Braun (Boston College), 2013.


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