Data can inform starting points but should never be used to cap expectations of learners, says Jaz Ampaw-Farr. “Based on data, I believed I would never succeed.”

As a child my trajectory was pretty bleak. On paper I was a disadvantaged, female, looked-after child on free school meals with an ethnic background of “other (please specify)”.

However, data does not tell the whole story. It’s just not that black and white (or, in this case, black African and white Irish Traveller).

At an administrative level, pupil data is a case of “numbers, not names”. In looking for trends, it’s not expedient to have to wade through the unnecessary detail of personal stories. Data, by its very nature, dehumanises learners by stripping away the human element.

In any system, the administration (government) is set up to serve those delivering the product (schools), not vice versa. When the slave becomes the master, teachers (that’s creative professionals who came into teaching to make an impact on lives, change the world and, well…teach) can spend more time collecting and analysing data – ticking off the right boxes – than they do teaching.

While waiting to speak at a conference recently, I listened to three other speakers stress the importance of pupil premium money going to children eligible for free school meals to improve their academic achievement. I’m right behind that. What made me uncomfortable was the shared certainty that not being able to afford to buy your own slice of pizza automatically guaranteed you a place at the wrong end of the bell curve.

For teachers it’s “names, not numbers”.

Data can inform starting points but should never be used to cap our expectations of learners. Schools should use the national data to compare their demographic, but must also be free to look beyond it to the unique circumstances of each mini-human in front of them. After all, school is the place to challenge unconscious bias, not encourage it.

We know that what gets measured, gets done. Data collected through some kind of assessment or test is usually related to knowledge and/or skills. As teachers we’d be mad, brave or probably both, not to show learners how to play the odds on multiple-choice test papers.

Data, by its very nature dehumanises learners

Some schools under pressure are forced to go further, focusing on teaching directly to the test, with little time for the essential skills that aren’t measured, such as mindset or resilience.

As a consultant, I have sat in literacy meetings with school leaders who, without blinking, have insisted that this year’s focus is the children who could possibly get higher scores in SATs. When I asked what was in place for the children who were not yet able to read, write and spell, the head replied that they were “not a priority this year”!

Such is the fear of “getting it wrong” that a school is forced to concentrate, not on what is best for their individual collection of learners, but on where they know the administration will be looking.

We’re better than that.

The irony is that teachers know who needs support and who doesn’t. Their decisions aren’t based on data relating to average learners belonging to a particular race, sex or class but on investing time building relationships, establishing expectations and setting challenges.

A more neutral definition of disadvantaged students would be those living with some level of chaos in their home lives. As one of those children, the expectations set by the data hindered my chances of progressing. And when it comes to success, ability is not the main driving force – it’s expectation.

For me, teachers who presented me with possible outcomes that didn’t conform to my perception of reality made all the difference.

Based on data, I believed I would never succeed; I would always get stuck and fail. Based on data, I believed, I was worthless.

I was lucky to have a handful of teachers who disagreed.

Those teachers held a vision of success for me until I was ready to take ownership of it for myself. They changed my life by holding an unconditional positive regard for me, above the forecast trajectory based on data.

That’s why I became a teacher. How about you?

Jaz Ampaw-Farr is a literacy adviser, author, speaker and school governor