By Duncan Baldwin – Head of The Castle Rock School
Although I am currently the head of an Academy which is part of a multi-academy trust, my first experience of leadership in this setting was as a trustee. I had been a school governor before so when I became a trustee I mulled over how this role was different in principle and practice from that of a school governor. An obvious difference, of course, is that there are multiple schools as part of a trust. What this means in practice is that there is a new dimension involved when considering performance. As a governor, I was used to thinking about how well the school had performed and setting that against the national picture. As a trustee the new issue was how individual academies in the trust had performed compared to one another. After all, the single greatest advantage of being a Trust in my view was to ensure that all of our students across all our schools were getting a good deal and, if not, using the strengths in one Academy to support any weaknesses in another.
Before I took up the headship at The Castle Rock School I was extremely fortunate to work for ASCL for several years. I spent a lot of time supporting ASCL members in the area of data and performance and in doing so came to a view about what really mattered regarding the use of data, and what could be misleading or downright harmful. Based on that, I believe the best starting points for any Trust would be think about the following questions:
- What is the right level of performance to consider?
- What measures, if any, really help school leaders, governors and trustees get to the heart of how the school is functioning? Do they illuminate or obfuscate what is really going on?
- What are the key principles needed to make fair and helpful comparisons?
We might, as a Trust be tempted to think an obvious starting point would be the headline measures used by the government, such as Attainment 8 and Progress 8. But we instantly run into dangerous territory; it’s been very well documented that Progress 8 is strongly influenced by a number of factors – student demographics, size of the school, curriculum and examination policy and so on. Unless all these are the same, direct comparison of Progress 8 can be highly misleading.
In any case, Progress 8 as a single number cannot begin to show the Trust what really matters; what is needed is to consider individual subjects and how they have performed. Being able to get data to schools which allows leaders to compare how students have achieved in each subject compared to students in the same subject was a significant achievement for ASCL. The ASCL data toolkit was developed by David Blow (CEO of a trust in Surrey and truly one of the most eminent amongst data thinkers), and made available online by SMID. This toolkit let schools make this correct subject-to-subject comparison. And by encouraging schools to collaborate by sharing their results, this became possible much earlier in the autumn term when leaders really needed to know, well ahead of any DfE publications. It also encouraged schools to focus less on average grades and more on the distribution of grades, one of the key principles all school leaders should use.
With no exams or performance tables this year we will need to make sure we use what data we do have in a sensible way. I have explained to my governors and trustees that we cannot compare ourselves to other schools, nor can we compare our performance to other years, including 2020. We can’t even compare how well our students achieved compared to their targets because we used those to sense check our teacher-assessed grades. What we can do is take a good look at our own students’ grades and how they performed in relation to their prior attainment. This is proving to be a really thought-provoking exercise and a great opportunity for our staff to understand how grades contribute to the bigger picture.
Our next challenge is to try to establish what we might do to estimate how our students have been affected by Covid-19. I suspect this will go well beyond what data could tell us. But I can say, looking out of my window and seeing our students, finally, back to some sort of normality, we will get there, data or not.
Duncan Baldwin is the Head of The Castle Rock School, an 11-18 academy in Leicestershire, part of the Apollo Partnership Trust. He was previously Deputy Director of Policy at The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), leading on accountability, qualifications and performance data.
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