Data, data, data?we are at times overwhelmed in its swamp. And to use deliberately and ironically statistical terminology to quantify emotion, we love it and loathe it in equal measure. We pore over our Which magazine or search for reviews on the internet, analysing statistical comparisons and opinion before choosing to buy something. The little green dots on the trip-advisor owl help us to decide quickly where to stay. We track our favourite player whilst watching the match, and put ourselves in the position of coach analysing every the detail of the play and the game. The newspapers rate each player in a team out of 10 and the interactive website allows us to make our own comment.

Measuring performance, and the indicators that predict it, is important to us. It seems that we have an insatiable desire for comparatives and superlatives; yet we are the first to complain when data, which quickly gains the status of indisputable fact in the eye of a reader, appears to misrepresent the truth.

In school, we use it all the time. We set assignments and tests and gather in the marks. We put effort and attainment and grades on reports, make predictions, and track across every session whether a pupil is in-line with, above or below expectations so we can put in the appropriate intervention. We analyse and scrutinise the results of examinations in fine detail with Heads of Department and measure departmental performance over time. Housemasters and mistresses record the pastoral and disciplinary concerns in the house and report it so we can track trends and identify issues early. We believe it helps us to improve the experience of the pupils and the performance of the school.

However, a focus on measurable outcomes is by its very nature reductionist and at times presents learning more as a product than a process- how good someone is at taking the test rather than the skills they demonstrate over time. Or sometimes what the data purports to measure is actually an indication of something entirely different: extremely high performance is as likely to demonstrate the level of selection as it is the quality of teaching and learning.

I cannot help but feel a tension between what is good practice in a situation where we are both morally and financially accountable for the lives of children, and what I believe to be true about education. In William Blake?s A Vision of the Last Judgement (1810), the persona asks the question:

‘When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying ?Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’

As an educator, I would like my students and teachers to see more of the world and themselves; to see the host of angels rather than the guinea sun, as Blake would have it. Encouraging that capacity to wonder must be at the heart of what we do. Education would therefore seem too slippery and too precious to be measured.

Similarly, watching a concert or a play, I am so often struck by the quality. I could measure the performance in terms of accuracy, the number of lines remembered, technical competence relative to the difficulty of the piece etc but that would miss a significant element.

I am not sure how I measure the laughter, or slight uneasiness for that matter, fully immersed in the nonsense world of Alice a few weeks ago. I cannot put in a league table that I was more impressed by this performance than in any other I have seen. Its exceptional quality required discipline, teamwork, attention to detail, rehearsal, timing, not to mention set, though to some extent those are tangible. Such rigour enabled creativity and improvisation, everything I want from Cranleigh; that cannot be tied down or reduced by measurement. Nor can the evident spirit that makes a community special and provides the richest of contexts for what we do.

Having witnessed many a concert over time, I will testify to the progress that is made as pupils move from playing music to becoming musicians. Yet what I am always most impressed by is the change in the people that has occurred and which I know will be the case for the younger ones. I can use that impression as an indicator that the school is doing what it should, but again the only measure I can apply is a subjective adjective such as ‘good’ or ‘brilliant.’

Data is good for guiding decisions and making judgement but it must not become an end in itself. Exams are important and comparison between individuals is a fact of living. However, we should not forget that schools are full of children in their fabulous variety learning the immeasurable qualities of human beings.

This blog is in two parts. The blog, ?Measuring in the sun? takes a different perspective on the importance of data.