There are still many leaders in schools that regularly reference Ofsted to justify what they do. However, many brave leaders have the experience and confidence to do things because they believe they are what is best for students and their learning. Examples are stopping lesson observation grading, stopping the expectation of showing progress in 20 minutes during a lesson and ceasing excessive marking strategies. Many of these have been debunked or lack support from research.
However, there is one practice that very few leaders will drop, for which the research is ignored; data.
In this blog the data I will be referring to is grades, levels, marks and percentages; classroom level data.
How many leaders would be brave enough to submit a blank spreadsheet to Ofsted or as a minimum keystage 2 data and key stage 4 outcomes?
I tell my students that only one grade really matters, the one on their results sheet in August. The stuff in between isn’t summative, it’s formative. So why do teachers have to regularly submit data to a spreadsheet throughout each key stage? This data has to come from somewhere, so teachers create systems to generate the data that is required.
What does the research say about classroom level data?
It’s simple, we don’t need it and generally has a negative impact on learning.
- It reduces motivation
- Students focus on the grade/level/number/percentage not how to improve
- It is usually generated for external sources not for learning itself
This webinar by Dylan Wiliam is an excellent watch. Whilst it focuses on feedback it clearly shows the research indicates that ‘strong feedback’ is more effective for learning than giving grades.
This slide in particular shows how weak feedback (just giving results) compares to strong feedback.
However many leaders would say that few people give just a grade. They give written feedback and/or targets to improve. However the same research shows that the sheer existence of the grade/number on the paper reduces impact compared to no grade/number, just feedback & target action.
Research shows we need to ditch grades/levels so why is it so hard for leaders to follow?
Key stage 3 – A missed opportunity
Life without levels was the ideal opportunity to follow the research on this. Sadly, whatever teachers or leaders came up with still ‘needed’ to go on a spreadsheet. Good intentions either turned into the Emperor’s new clothes or just dropping the new GCSE grades 1-9 into key stage 3. A lovely spreadsheet full of data is perfect to show that students in the school are progressing.
Key stage 4 – ‘the data is needed’ and another missed opportunity
Too many reasons why data is needed at key stage 4 link to external factors. Year 11 need a grade for their key stage 5 applications, parents want to know how they’re getting on (so they might need to pay for a tutor) and the usual pressure that leaders feel from an immanent Ofsted inspector demanding a spreadsheet to prove x or y is true.
Key stage 4 has also recently had the same great opportunity as key stage 3. The new GCSEs have meant we don’t have any grade boundaries. This is the ideal to work with students on the quality of their work not marks/grades. Yet around the country teachers are being told they must create grade boundaries. This of course is utter nonsense as explained in this blog.
Last year, I didn’t use any numbers or grades with my year 10. Their work was always marked using simple criteria based on exam requirements.
After the first test they asked for a mark. I explained that they wouldn’t be getting one. From then on, they knew when they got work back it was about understanding what they’d done right/wrong, not about a number.
However I was still required to enter a grade to a spreadsheet. This meant running a dual system. Whilst I didn’t give students any marks, I still recorded marks. I teach two classes, totalling 50. This almost doubled my workload and became unsustainable the more they learnt. So in their year 10 ‘mock exam’ they got marks and a grade, alongside their orange sticker. I am pleased that as they had formed a habit of what to do with feedback they still did it in the same way, but as expected discussion about marks and grades began.
Without using marks/grades, both me and the students could easily tell you what their strengths and weakness were. They also all knew how to improve their work. However, sadly for some, that isn’t enough. Data, spreadsheets and fear rule. It will take a strong leader to ditch spreadsheets that require this kind of data. However, if the structures and systems are put in place, I’m convinced that he who dares will win. Following research, in this case, will make a big difference.