How governors can get to grips with data literacy

Arbor - 10 October, 2018

Category : Blog

How governors can get to grips with data literacy

This blog has been written for Arbor by Oliver Kean, Service Development Manager at Governors for Schools.  One of the first things governors realise when they start is that the role involves data. A lot of data. Data on attainment, about progress, on different groups, data on pupils’ attendance, punctuality, behaviour incidents. And it’s not

This blog has been written for Arbor by Oliver Kean, Service Development Manager at Governors for Schools

One of the first things governors realise when they start is that the role involves data. A lot of data. Data on attainment, about progress, on different groups, data on pupils’ attendance, punctuality, behaviour incidents.

And it’s not just data focused for their own school. Governors are presented with data on national, local and similar schools so they can benchmark their performance to identify areas where they might be able to do better.

They then need to understand what the data is suggesting sufficiently well to construct challenging, relevant questions that hold experienced headteachers and other members of the senior team to account, and identify where it puts the school at risk of not achieving particular performance thresholds that could lead to intervention.

It’s a challenge for all governors, but especially those who are less confident with numbers and statistics (who may nevertheless have valuable expertise elsewhere). Nowadays, everyone involved in school governance is expected to be able to use data to help deliver effective governance. However, it’s clear that not all school governors can. A recent report from Ofsted said:

The ability to understand and query performance data was a common area of weakness … Weak governing bodies rarely provided enough challenge to the headteacher’s interpretation of published and internal assessment information, absence rates and exclusion data. There are also schools at which governors are not given access to assessment information. This limits their ability to challenge leaders.

Data’s rise within the accountability system hasn’t gone unchallenged, however. In response to the accountability system’s seemingly insatiable hunger for ever more complex, in-depth, up-to-date data some teachers have begun to complain that it now represents an unmanageable aspect of their work, and one that distracts them from the core nature of teaching. The oft-repeated complaint that education is about more than just numbers and learning is about more than just stats is nevertheless worth repeating, because it’s fundamentally true. You’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher that went into the role first and foremost to deliver incremental improvements in narrow performance measures derived from assessment results.

Ofsted has begun to show signs of understanding this as it works on a new inspection framework; chief inspector Amanda Spielman recently said that schools that place too narrow an emphasis on their data systems are more likely to suffer falls in performance. But good governors have always known this. They know that understanding the health of a school is equally about the unmeasurable, the emotional and the invisible. That’s why the best governors understand and apply data to their role, but also make sure that they visit school, speak to parents, pupils and staff, look at books, displays, go for lunch, spend time in the staff room, and see the playground. Of course, this places demands on governors’ already limited time and energy – anything that frees them up to see a school, its complexities, nuances and atmosphere ‘in the round’ is to be welcomed.

Attending training on data is one way to get smarter, thus providing more time for governance other crucial activities. Training can help governors to quickly understand what data might be telling us, provide quick ways to assess its robustness and reliability, as well as show us the limits to its usefulness (and where investigation elsewhere might be more appropriate). A quick and convenient way to learn more is to use the Governors for Schools eLearning for an introduction to some of the key concepts and ways to use data.

Moreover, adopting more intuitive data reporting systems, such as that provided by Arbor Insight, goes a long way to providing governors with the information they need in a clear and digestible way, giving them clear leads as they hold leaders to account. Based on Department for Education data, they convert often confusing formats and measurements into something that is far easier to interpret and analyse. As such, it saves headteachers a huge amount of time in preparation and commentary.

While it’s clear that we aren’t about to see a wholesale abandonment of data anytime soon, data literacy for governors is increasingly going to involve thinking hard about proportionality, ease of use and accessibility. Anything that can help schools manage their data and performance analysis, such as Arbor Insight, should be welcomed enthusiastically.

Governors for Schools exists to improve educational standards so that children and young people have the chance to realise their full potential. You can visit their website here

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