English in the Classroom: A Year in the Data Dark

I've been teaching English for seven years; swiftly moving from NQT to KS4 leader to Head of Faculty to Director of English (one of new fashion of Extended Leadership Team titles) and for the most part I've been fortunate enough to experience joyous GCSE results days, full of smiling faces and heaving massive sighs of relief that an ever-increasing number of students each year were achieving what they needed to move on to the next level.

Before we continue, as an essential aside, I want you to know that this is what has always mattered to me. My drive has always been firmly centred on the student and ensuring that:
  1. They achieve what they need as an individual to progress to the next stage of their life (whether that be the child who needs an A* to get into a Russell Group to study medicine or the child who needs a C to get on an Apprenticeship)
  2. They leave compulsory English education not entirely hating the basics of reading and writing (although of course I'd love them to all be lifelong passionate readers...)

However as teachers and leaders we know full well that although individual success and subject enjoyment is what ultimately drives us, whole cohort success is a pressure that weighs heavy on our shoulders and, as English leaders, we make or break a school's reputation, funding arrangements, Ofsted rating and so on...

It's the stuff of nightmares. It's what keeps you wide awake at 4am fretting about whether you need to take over that bottom set class from the NQT for the sake of the cohort.

The difference data makes

I have a confession to make. I love data.

I didn't get into teaching because I love data. Of course not. I'm an English teacher, I'm a words person. My entire life centres around language and its playful construction to create a cacophony of pure emotion. I specialised in Modernism for crying out loud.

To be brutally honest, to this day I haven't a clue how I got a B in GCSE Maths or how I passed the QTS Numeracy test. I can't even do the numbers on Countdown. I add up using my fingers. You get the idea.

However, after a year of teaching, once I felt a bit more confident at actually just standing up in front of 30 kids and getting them to learn stuff, I realised that I needed to understand how I knew they had learned – the progress they were making and identifying those next steps.

I even remember the first time I did some 'data analysis'. My Set 1 Year 9 class (my absolute babies who I taught from Year 8 to Year 11) had done a mock exam and the results were quite mixed. I didn't understand it. I'd taught them all the same thing. They all sat the same paper. Why weren't they all achieving the same result? It sounds naive now, but at the time it was like some magical epiphany. I realised I needed to break down these numbers I had on a page: find patterns, compare and contrast, scrutinise.

So I did. It took hours. I didn't know how to use the complicated and clunky Excel spreadsheet – I didn't really know how to filter or sort. I made a lot of mistakes. I probably wasted a lot of time. But when I finally started to notice patterns and recognise that this skill or that skill was needing development it awoke something inside me. I know. That sounds a bit ridiculous. But I'll never forget bounding into the KS3 Leader's classroom to show him my analysis of my class. He was impressed. He said to me, "Wow, that's far more detailed than what I've done for the whole cohort". Those words echoed in my ears for a long time. I think because my approach to teaching my classes genuinely changed that day and I became far more focused on their progress.

As time passed I got "better" at tracking and analysing data. I became more comfortable with these complex Excel spreadsheets and my analysis became more refined; my findings more astute, enabling me to put precise actions in place for the students that saw immediate positive impacts. This didn't go unnoticed and rapidly I became the KS4 Leader. These tracking documents were still taking me forever to unpick though. I'd often be up until the early hours of the morning clicking and filtering away.

My first year as KS4 Leader was the 2013 cohort. We'd been hit hard by the '2012 Grade Boundary Fiasco' so there was pressure to succeed. Pressure from above, but also an internal pressure that in my 2012 class many students who "should" have achieved Cs were left hanging on Ds, sickeningly close to their Holy Grail C. I didn't want that to happen again.

So after every data collection I spent hours labouring over my spreadsheets – working out precisely how many marks every student would need to score in their exams to attain their target grade and more. I would then divide those students into various groups: quick wins who I could turn around with just a chat with their teacher pointing out that their Question 3s needed sharper attention; the students with dodgy attendance who desperately needed extra booster sessions on constructing a basic argument; borderline A grade students who just needed some time and attention to recommend some wider reading or KS5 mentors. Every student was catered for.

The whole English team worked tirelessly with the students in their class or in extra revision sessions. There was a real buzz when the kids went into the hall to sit the exam – they felt confident. They knew how many marks they needed to achieve and that knowing made them feel safe. It made me feel safe. I felt in control and so we could all actually enjoy the learning of Language and Literature.

“Come results day … I had predicted the results within 1%”

Come results day, it was our best ever set of outcomes. I was personally proud that my C/D borderlines were smashing Bs and As (we even had students who had formerly detested Literature because they thought they were "rubbish" at it deciding to switch to A level Literature –  and they did well, and they went to University. All things they had never dared dreamed of. Our WBRI were closing the gap with BAF; our FSM in line with our non-FSM; our boys in line with our girls. All learner groups had significantly improved their attainment.

I had predicted the results within 1%.

And so it continued. I became Head of English and my spreadsheets migrated to Google Docs. I learned how to mail merge and would create these personalised breakdowns for students to stick in their book and tape to their bedroom walls of how many marks they had in their coursework and how many they needed to achieve in their speaking, and listening, and then exam.

It still always felt like it took too long to do this rigorous detailed tracking, but I knew every single student in each cohort and was able to show my team how to do detailed analysis so that they too could take responsibility for their students' progress.

Then came the GCSE reforms…

And then it all changed. The GCSE reforms threw us all into sudden darkness. I felt like a broken record in every RAP meeting repeating that I couldn't predict the outcomes because not only did we not know grade boundaries, but we didn't really know what the exams would look like or how well our students would respond to the pressures of the 100% exam, closed book, nineteenth century heavy circus they were about to be thrown into.

It's tough being a teacher in times of reform; it's even harder being the HoF. I had to remain a smiley, solid front of confidence at every hurdle; every mock exam and every new bit of information seeped out to us from the exam board or DfE. To top it all off I did it pregnant, but that's a story for another day.

Getting control back over pupil tracking

Of all the changes and obstacles we had to overcome last year, the inability to efficiently track and monitor data was by far the biggest for me. I hated not being able to be laser sharp. I hated not being able to say to a student (particularly the disaffected) "if you have this in your coursework, then you only need this to achieve X grade". I realised how heavily I relied upon this vital information to motivate my students towards success.

To me, this is why Pupil Progress is so important. We now have a system in place that means that we have a solid sense of grade boundaries and the expectation for each question on each paper. I don't have to waste hours clicking and filtering Excel spreadsheets, or fretting about who screwed up the Google Doc.

This year I have control back over the tracking and can take it to a whole new level for the students so they can see how they are progressing over the course of the whole GCSE. Next year there shouldn't be any surprises – we can return to confidently guiding our students and refocus our energy on actually loving English again.