Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Vital statistics

Pile of numbers

Raising achievement is always a challenge for school leaders. Assistant head, Sue Ferris, explains how data is helping motivate students and improve results at Falmouth School.

To demonstrate the impact of the effective use of data in our school, I often tell the story of a girl who recently finished her studies with us. At 14, she believed that her future was in hairdressing, and she would have been an asset to any salon.

She was initially predicted mainly Cs at GCSE but in the intervening months something changed. Thanks to more effective use of past and predicted achievement data this girl became convinced that she could do better. She ended up with nine A grades at GCSE, with an A* in one subject. This summer, two years on, she was accepted into Swansea University to study law with the intention of becoming a barrister.

There is little doubt that good teaching had a lot to do with this student's change in aspirations, but the thing that made her achieve so much in less than two years was not just teaching alone. It was her improved motivation and the desire to take control of her own achievement.

The accessibility and effective use of relevant data has made a significant difference to students and teachers at Falmouth. Students know and understand their own assessment data and set their own next step and longer-term targets based on this, rather than having them decided on by teachers, and this is having a dramatic effect.

This starts with a student's entry into the school. We give students a Howard Gardner questionnaire to identify their learning preferences and the results are used alongside more conventional test marks to enable teachers to personalise learning. We have a number of teaching assistants who are tasked with looking at each pupil's past achievement and Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores in year 7 to see if there are any areas that they will need particular support with.

For example, if a pupil has scored level 5 across all subjects but a level 3 in writing, we can see instantly that he or she may struggle in a secondary school where there is a strong focus on written work. The pupil is then given additional support to strengthen their writing so that they can fulfil their potential.

This information is always recorded on our Capita SIMS management information system so that any teacher in contact with the student is aware of the discrepancies through detailed tracking sheets, and can work on improving or accommodating them in their lesson.

Our achievement, attainment, behaviour and attendance data is also available through SIMS and is accessed daily by all teachers via their laptops. As a result it has become a cornerstone of the learning process for students as well as the teaching staff.

Peer assessment

Assessment for learning and peer assessment are now embedded processes at the school. We often display students' attainment data direct from SIMS in the class via a laptop or interactive whiteboard.

Some teachers may worry that pupils would be embarrassed to have their results or predicted grades displayed so publically, but we need to remember that students already have a fairly good idea of who is top or bottom of the class anyway. We are not using information that they do not already know, but rather clarifying and sharing.

We have also created an environment of trust and support in our classes. Pupils are willing to help others to succeed and so there is little issue with putting results on the wall. If a student wants or needs to improve a grade in English, they refer to the level or grade criteria to find out exactly what they need to do to improve, then set a specific target, such as 'use semi-colons in complex sentences', and move forward.

What makes our system different and motivational is that a student's target comments are often entered into SIMS by students themselves and carry the same worth as teacher assessments or externally verified data.

The act of typing in target comments is often a means of memorising exactly what they have committed themselves to and then focusing on this target. Students then help each other in defining exactly how they can achieve this target. Those that have already progressed to the next level explain exactly what they did to achieve the required improvement to those that need to make the leap.

The result has been a huge increase in personal motivation. Some students want to compete against the targets that the QCDA and other data predictions throw up for them. This has certainly been one key factor in the improvement in results in boys.

This year, there was no significant gap between results for boys and girls at GCSE level and the boys tell us it is because they enjoy the challenge of trying to do better than their predictions.

Using grade criteria

Other students benefit from the step-by-step goals laid down in the grade criteria that allow them to see how they can make an impact on their learning.

Students can see their peers improve a grade by working through these goals and know it is possible themselves. And as each one succeeds they are happy to work with others giving guidance and advice to each other. This is more than peer-to-peer assessment; it is more like a collective learning experience.

We recently had a visitor to our school who was astonished to hear a student talk about how they were performing against their upper and lower quartiles. The visitor was an ex-Ofsted inspector who rarely heard teachers speak in this way, let alone students and this example shows just how comfortable the students have become with the terminology as well as the process.

The changes we have witnessed since developing our use of assessment for learning have been impressive. GCSE results improve each year, whilst the gender gap narrows and our recent A level results were outstanding.

There is no doubt that quality teaching is at the heart of the success. However, student ownership of their achievements and the data's role in pinpointing and mapping progress has also been instrumental in our improved performance.

Sue Ferris is an assistant head at Falmouth School, an 11-18 school with more than 1,200 pupils in Cornwall.

Further reading...

Free data evaluation tool available at www.dataforimprovement.co.uk

Free Howard Gardner learning styles questionnaire available at

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