Schools doing data on their own terms?

Throughout our investigations, we have seen instances of what might seem to be shoddy data practices. Yet, what might appear to be awkward, clumsy or straight-out inefficient engagements with data, could actually be seen as teachers and staff working to exert some form of control over the roles that data are permitted to play within the school. These are not instances of data resistance per se, but certainly are attempts by school staff to do data on their own terms.

For the time being, schools are still able to exert some form of expert professional oversight with regards to how data is encroaching into their core processes and business flows. These schools are a long way from David Beer’s description of the automated data gaze – detached, mediated and exercised at a distance by automated analytics and other data systems. For the time being, then, schools are able to shape data more than data is shaping schools. This is what Beer terms the qualified use of data – rooted in some form of local expertise and a sense of professionally-informed proximity and contextualisation. The common retort from teachers is that ‘No data knows my students like I do’. For better and worse, this is the prevailing tone under which our schools are ‘doing’ data

The key question is how long this fragile balancing act can continue. Schools are having to work very hard behind-the-scenes to shepherd and steward data – to keep their analyses low-key and localised, and ensure that any ‘data-driven’ actions are appropriately contextualised. These oversights are disproportionately reliant on a few key ‘data’ members of staff who are knowledgeable enough to ‘fudge’ things in favour of the school.

But it is perhaps only a matter of time before these conditions start to change. These current gatekeepers will inevitably retire, schools will become susceptible to the barrage of indictors, dashboards and portals, alongside the promise of automated efficiencies of the school data industry. Amidst broader pressures on education systems (such as the deprofessionalisation of teachers, continued standardisation of instruction and assessment) then the hype of the data-driven school (outlined in other posts) might become more insistent and unavoidable. At the beginning of the 2020s our research suggests that schools still hold the upper hand. Whether this is still the case by the time we reach the 2030s is a moot point.

Key Question to reflect on … So what might be done over the next ten years to ensure that the worst fears of the datafied school do not come to pass?