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Guest Blog: Fewer resources, more intelligent data — can schools do more with less?

Guest Blog: Fewer resources, more intelligent data — can schools do more with less?

/ Pete Atherton

Many would argue that schools have been expected to do more with less, since the austerity years. Covid-19, though, has reframed the issue of resources but it has also disrupted how we understand everything else.

Disrupted working needs disruptive thinking.

This week’s blog is about where Ofsted sits in relation to the challenging context of trying to run a school during a pandemic. In doing so, will be bringing together a summary of the experiences of a variety of senior school leaders.

I will focus on the role of edtech in all this, with a focus on teaching and learning and the recording and reporting of data.

Balancing not toppling?

Teaching is one of those jobs that is all about balance. We balance our roles as leader, parent, counsellor, role model and expert; we balance our workload and sometimes stumble, teeter but hopefully never topple. But how can schools balance the reactive needs of responding to individual pupils, even entire year groups having to self-isolate, with the need to be proactive in improving standards? If that isn’t enough, how can we also balance the regulatory requirements of Ofsted?

In 2018, Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education (HMCI) said this, to foreground the 2019 Inspection Framework:
“The accountability system in recent years has become overly weighted in favour of performance data and has shifted away from what is actually being taught. …. Ofsted inspections have themselves become more data-driven…. This approach is failing young people. That is why, as I have recently announced, I want to rebalance the inspection framework so that Ofsted plays its proper role in complementing rather than intensifying performance data.”


Following on from this, one of Ofsted’s claims in a statement about the 2019 New Inspection Framework was that school must show a commitment to reducing workload for teachers. Fast forward to late 2020. The second lockdown is coming to an end, at the time of writing. Schools have been trying to carry on as normal during this entire period.

Teachers’ workloads have not decreased at all but this time but it is not Ofsted who are driving this. Did I really just say that?

I do believe I did and what’s more, many school leaders have remarked upon a more conciliatory approach adopted by Ofsted in the context of Covid-19. Since Covid, the monitoring visits have been received more favourably by senior leaders. Instead of fear and compliance, the monitoring visits have revealed that Ofsted were there to listen and learn about the ongoing challenges that were being presented to them. Though schools still need to be on top of their data, Ofsted would not focus unduly on internal assessment. Instead, they would consider the purpose of all data, its uses and the extent to which it improves the quality of children’s education. Furthermore, the statutory data was incomplete in 2020, as pupils did not take external exams. Schools would need to demonstrate, therefore, prove that their predicted grades submitted to the DfE informed by rigorous and accurate data.

All of this has started what Simon Sloan termed as a recalibration between the role of Ofsted vis-à-vis schools but has this helped reduce teachers’ workload?

Recalibrating education?

life work balance

Simon Sloan, who is the Senior Advisor in School Performance at the Diocese of Leeds identified how Covid-19 was a double-edged sword for schools. During the first lockdown, teachers were freed up to think about how to improve their pupils’ learning. The need to create more online materials served as a catalyst for this focus on learning, as well as teaching, engagement not transmission — clear conceptual pillars, not random activities.

The other edge of this sword (the metaphor ends there, don’t worry) has revealed that teachers may have thought more closely about teaching and learning but are spending a great deal of their time on Covid management. In extreme cases, some staff members’ entire working day is taken up with Covid-related activity. Examples of this type of activity are developing, implementing and disseminating new MIS attendance codes that are designed to enable schools to follow Government guidelines to recognise when pupils are ‘not attending in circumstances related to COVID-19.’ It is also the constant haranguing of absent minded or non-compliant children to put their masks on.

The evidence of the evidence

Adam Gough, who is Primary Deputy Head, Assessment lead and Key Stage 1 moderator discussed similar themes, when I interviewed him. One of these is the more benign presence of Ofsted, as summarised in this statement from the 2019 Ofsted framework:

‘Leaders should not prepare any documentary evidence specifically for a visit. If documentation is needed to support discussion, it should be part of the standard documents or policies that leaders use for the normal day-to-day business of the school.’

Add to this the presence of Covid-19 and you can see that the role of Ofsted and internal data has been reframed. Adam Gough talked about how their data is used to find gaps in pupils’ progress. These gaps can help refocus the teaching or they could trigger an intervention in some cases. Adam’s school have worked collaboratively with the Government, to draw on Covid catch up funding. In terms of edtech, among Adam’s goals are to help edtech learning platforms and MIS foster a culture of collaboration and sharing efficient practice. In doing so, the pupils’ experience should be more fulfilling. They have also worked closely with Bromcom, to help improve their Primary Tracker and ensure that it is instant, intelligent benchmarking across the entire MAT.

Another area in which we would hope that many schools’ goals are aligned with Ofsted’s and those of the children. In the post-Covid world, schools should gain or retain a broad and balanced curriculum.

But how do you create and improve your curriculum across multiple centres and with all the problems presented by Covid?

Step forward, Deborah Strain

Small problems, big questions and vice versa…

small problems

Deborah Strain is the Trust Leader of Education across the Eko Trust, who have schools in Newham, Barking & Dagenham and Hackney. A conversation with Deborah provides an excellent snapshot of some of education’s big questions, for instance when attendance can be inconsistent and is neither the fault of the school nor the pupils.

Ofsted have stated that schools’ accountability culture had been excessively focused on performance data, to the detriment of pupils’ learning. Could it be that Covid is accelerating the process of schools being willing and able to concentrate on what is important, however small?

School leaders and MIS

The pandemic has sharpened the Eko Trust’s awareness of the number of absences across the Trust, pupils’ engagement with online resources; what interventions are needed to reach out to the disengaged, the vulnerable and those pupils lacking connectivity or hardware. Sadly, some school leaders still may think that one school MIS is the same as any other and any will do — and hence stick the one they have. Yet there is a great deal of innovation in MIS platforms in the recent years. Aside from the new era of cloud, the new generation MIS’ more intuitive data has helped school leaders like Deborah and Adam act more efficiently and avoid having to wait for data drops, using bolt-on tools like Excel spreadsheets. Both Adam and Deborah are making most of this new generation MIS platform.

Each micro problem adds up to require a macro solution. In this case, how can we bridge the digital divide, and how can technology be part of the solution, instead of the problem? More specifically, how can technology work harder so teachers can focus on supporting and inspiring children?

Interested in a new MIS?

Pete Atherton

Pete Atherton

Pete Atherton is a Lecturer in Education at the Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University.