Published on: 18 Jan 2012

One thing that schools should do is to look carefully at all the performance data they hold on their students.

To take arms against a sea of troubles, Gerald Haigh

The Times Educational Supplement is one hundred years old this year. It was launched in September 1910 as a free weekend handout with The Times newspaper and was an instant hit, to the extent that it expanded and within four years became a separate publication costing one penny.

During the summer, I spent some time looking through the archives, which exist mainly as bound volumes of the actual paper (only issues from the past few decades are held digitally). They make, as you can imagine, fascinating reading, and one overwhelming impression is of what the late, great Ted Wragg called, when he wrote in 1985 about the first 75 years of the TES, “The Piccadilly Circus view of curriculum change.” (If you hang around long enough you’ll eventually see every one of your old friends go by).

I studied or browsed scores, indeed hundreds, of articles detailing all of the great educational events – the 1944 Education Act, reports bearing illustrious names – Hadow, Plowden, Bullock, Cockroft. I reminded myself of the notorious “Black Papers” of the Sixties and Seventies, of Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech, the Baker Education Act, the arrival of Ofsted and Woodhead. And, I conclude, it all leaves me completely immune to the suggestion from many people that we live in interesting times – because I can honestly say, believe me, we always have.

In the end, though, I might just stretch a point and admit that there really is change of a different order in the air at the moment. We still don’t know everything, but we are aware of the handbrake applied to the Building Schools for the Future programme, the drive to create more academies – centrally funded, independent of local authorities (but not, presumably, of central government). There may also be ‘free’ schools, outside of the existing system, notionally started up by parents but surely, in practice, created by who knows what organisation or interest group. It’s all projected to happen at unprecedented speed too. Think about it. The last really big upheaval, creating new and different kinds of school, was driven by the 1944 Education Act, which established the right of all children to secondary education. It brought about the eleven-plus exam and the tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and secondary technical schools. (Ah, those technical schools. Where are you now when we need you?)

That was radical in its own way, generally seen as a determined attempt to break through into a braver post-war world. The point is, though, that the 44 Act, groundbreaking though it might have been, was a product of evolution rather than revolution. For at least twenty years there had been a keen awareness that as the twentieth century burgeoned into life, precious and necessary talent was being lost for want of a more inclusive brand of secondary school. It still, though, took a government report, the careful examination of alternatives and a lot of preparation, consultation and thought before it made the statute book. Now, rather than all that, we have the Churchillian, “Action this Day”, or, perhaps more appropriately, Jean-Luc Picard’s “Make it So” – peremptory demands from a government determined to be seen as quickly putting right a generation of wrongs. Whether that’s bold, over-hasty, creative, decisive or bizarrely misconceived is anybody’s guess.

What we also know, of course, is that there’s going to be a lot less money around. Budget cuts will be handed down till they come to roost in individual departments and classrooms, where cherished plans will be cancelled, innovations abandoned and a concerted search for cost-effectiveness will begin. So, there’s lots of uncertainty around and a few possible shocks. How, then, can school leaders take arms against this sea of troubles?

One thing they can do right now is look carefully at all the performance data they hold on their students. Is it up to date? Is it useful? Is it easy to understand, analyse and show to other stakeholders? Because if there’s one thing that’s always going to be necessary for a school, whatever threats, questions or transformations may come, it’s to know in as exact, clear and measured a form as possible how its students are doing, individually and in groups. School leaders must be able to make comparisons with past performance, with other schools and the rest of the nation. The leadership team needs all of that to hand, because when the questions are asked – whether by Ofsted, the government, or some group as yet unforeseen, the answers have to be gold plated – accurate, guaranteed and easy to understand. The school that has that capability is ready for anything. The leadership can take the initiative in any discussion about the school’s future or its status, confidently presenting credible figures and projections.

A school that isn’t data enabled in the same way, though, will be on the back foot. The leadership will hear assumptions and judgments about their own performance quoted at them by someone else, and with no chance to correct or question.

The lesson, then, is simple and it is this – own your own performance data. Know how your year groups, departments and individual students are doing and what the evidence is saying about future developments. Be confident of the numbers, to the extent that you’ll back them against any judgments coming from outside.

All of that, of course, implies testing. It’s why, for example, many secondary schools administer the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) to all students on entry. Many believe it’s a better benchmark than the KS2 SAT score on its own – and, of course, where primaries have boycotted the SATs, it’s particularly important.

The CAT, though, is just one tool among many. Look at what else is available from GL Assessment. Choose wisely and judiciously, because what you want is not masses of test scores for their own sake, but useful information that supports your own vision for learning. If the government is serious about giving school leaders the freedom to lead in their own way, then those leaders, by the same token, must know as much about their schools and their students as possible.

And one final thought. What we don’t know at the time of writing is whether the government is fully aware of the role that ICT is increasingly playing in schools. If they really are unsure what it’s all about, there are lots of good schools and teachers out there ready to show them what the future has in store. Quite apart from anything else, the government would do well to take an interest in the considerable efficiency and cost-saving possibilities that come with the effective use of ICT. Online testing alone, as offered by GL Assessment, removes layers of administrative work from the school and its staff – student lists are picked up from the management information system, test scores and analyses are delivered to wherever they’re needed. And, of course, students are working in a digital environment that they’re used to and feel confident with.

Schools have dealt with setbacks and disappointments before. I knew that before I glanced at the TES archives. Always, the imperative is to do the best possible job for students with whatever is available. Generations of teachers have necessarily become adept at that. It’s about knowing, in detail, where you’re starting from, and then using that knowledge to set the best course for where you plan to go.

Gerald Haigh, Writer & Consultant on Education Management

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