Friday, 24 January 2014

What's it all about? Data

I intended this blog to be about sentences, yet, as with teaching, you start with one thing and then suddenly you go off at a tangent and end the lesson on something totally different. So, data. Yes, it has become very important in the day-to-day teaching of lessons. Thanks to the new demigod, Progress, we all sacrifice time, sanity and our waistlines in the hope of achieving a pardon from being sacrificed on the altar of Gove. All hail, Progress. Progress. Progress.   

Since stepping in for the Head of English, data has become my new best friend. It has become my Joey from ‘Friends’: a loveable thing that makes me cry and laugh within thirty minutes. Before, I have always skirted around it. Years ago I produced spreadsheets of numbers and messed around with colouring boxes, but achieved very little. I have shown students in the past the infamous spreadsheets and they have humoured me and pointed out how they liked the nice colours. I responded by telling them off for using the word ‘nice’ and then promptly agreed that the colours were nice. Sadly, the only progress it produced was between parts of a lesson. Nonetheless, data now has helped me work out what I need to do and how I need to do it.

I think the issue with English and data is often they represent two parts of my brain: the creative and the mathematical. Often, I struggle with a student if they love Maths, because they often find aspects of English difficult because there are no clear answers in English or no clear formula. So too, probably, the Maths departments across the land struggle with a student that loves drama. There’s never enough feelings in algebra. Let’s role-play x in this equation guys. Furthermore, I have sat there in the past listening to numbers being spouted out in a meeting and ended up day-dreaming  about windy moors and fields of daffodils. Only to be awoken by the mention of something with a whiff of English about it. But, now I am kind of obsessed with numbers. How many people are doing this? How many people need to be doing that? In fact, a lot of people have written lots of nice (sorry: interesting, good or thought-provoking) blogs about redeveloping the curriculum and what they feel needs to be included in a new curriculum. I tend to be a bit slap-dash with all that stuff, so here’s my overview for KS3.

Year 7:  Dickens / Ibsen / Chaucer

Year 8: Dickens / Brecht / Tennyson

Year 9: Dickens / Strindberg / Marvell

I am only joking, but my thoughts of the curriculum have side-stepped this focus on content. It has even side-stepped some of the focus on skills. I have, surprisingly given the title of the blog, focused on data and specifically on several questions:


What data do we need?

Why do we need the data?

How will we make the data reliable (or in trendy speak ‘robust’)?


I have worked in several English departments and they all do the same thing: students study one topic at a time and then at the end of the unit the students complete an assessment. Occasionally, students might have an end of year assessment, or in the ‘APP-mad days’ an APP test every so often, but this pattern is often repeated.  This formula is used no doubt in most schools. The students do the work and then they get assessed on it. It is quite a sensible formula and that is why it is so common and used by most schools. It works for what people have been doing in the past. My problem, however, is that it can create a false picture of some of their skills and some of their abilities. English teaching is cumulative. Like a ball of fluff, students rolls through things and pick little bits as they go along. At the end of it, the teacher assesses a piece of writing to see what fluff they have picked up along the way. It becomes hard to separate independent thought from thoughts that have clearly been lifted from another source. English assessments then become a case of remembering all the clever things the teacher said rather than a case of engaging and thinking about text or topic.

Recently with a very bright class, I asked them to write a small essay based on ‘The Woman in Black’.  The question I gave them was this:

How does Susan Hill create tension in the opening few pages of the second chapter?'

Their responses were typical of what I often see: a lack of independence. They remembered some clever things I said about the previous chapter and moulded them to fit the chapter. Rather than think about how Hill used description, they spoke endlessly about what they had spotted in the previous chapter. Now, you might say: they probably were not secure with their analysis and terminology. Believe me: they could spot a piece of assonance blindfolded while submerged in vat of Fanta. They find it far easier to recall and adapt instead of think and question.

Therefore, I have adapted the assessment cycle for our KS3



1                                                                                                              Class assessment

2                              Blind assessments          

3                                                                                                              Class assessment

4                              Blind assessments

5                                                                                                              Class assessment

6                              Blind assessments          


We are using blind assessments. An assessment where the student cannot prepare or revise beforehand. Or, the teacher crams them with the answers. Only I will know the tasks. The tasks will take the form of a writing task and a question based on an extract. We are building into our curriculum assessments that demonstrate what students can do on their own. Class assessments, if we are honest, are a mixture of a student’s ideas, the other students’ ideas, the teacher’s ideas and the ideas of a model essay you showed the class. Taking away these factors, will give teachers a clear idea of what a student can and can’t do. Good teaching is about modelling, but maybe we are doing too much modelling. Maybe we need to push the bird out of the nest to see if it can fly or not.

The class assessments remain, but they run alongside the blind assessments, so that we can see how reliable both sets of assessments are.  The class assessments are vital because they help students to form, develop and extend ideas and they help them with the important skill of drafting and redrafting work. However, the blind assessments help students to work independently and work in exam conditions.  Often we see students struggle to write in exams and that is often due to the fact that they have always relied on a class of thirty people to provide some ideas for them in their writing.

But, how do you make it reliable? Well, the blind assessments are going to be blind in more than one way. The sets are going to be broken up for the assessments. A teacher will invigilate and mark a group that are made from the rest of the sets, but not their own class. Therefore, the process will hopefully be objective and transparent. It will mean that two people will mark the same student’s work every other term. There will be consistency in the marking or, if not, it can be addressed.  The results will be used to restructure the sets and students will move as a result of the blind assessments.


Back to my original questions:

What data do we need?

Why do we need the data?

How will we make the data reliable (or in trendy speak ‘robust’)?


For me, we need the data to work out the areas to focus on. We need to see where improvements have to be made. The data is to help us be precise in our teaching. If the reading is where students struggle, then we should be targeting the reading. The data tells us a story. So maybe after all English and Mathematics go hand in hand. The numbers tell us a story, but the English teachers work out how to end that story. A renewed focus on reliability will help us to see if it is a believable story and not one where people comeback from the dead and appear in the shower in the next season.

All hail, Progress!

Thanks for reading,



  1. Will you let us all know how the blind assessments go? We are giving our Yr 9 groups an unseen paper (unseen to us as well as 1 teacher has created the paper) but we do know that the paper will be linked to the unit we have just taught.

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