The need for educational data – Lindsay Paterson

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The Scottish government announced a few days ago that no data would be collected this year on children’s progress and attainment in primary schools and early secondary. The Educational Institute of Scotland, the main trade union of teachers, welcomed this as a helpful step.

This suspicion of statistics in the Scottish educational establishment is not a sudden symptom of Covid-19. The range and depth of statistical information on Scottish education has been contracting for two decades. The present Scottish government, to their credit, had been showing some signs of understanding how serious the absence is, through their introduction of the new Scottish National Standardised Assessments. But they incurred thereby the wrath of the people who truly run Scottish schools – the quangoes, the lobbying groups, the utterly conservative trade unions. Whatever their private views, there was no way that Scottish ministers were going to insist on the collection of data during the present emergency.

Let’s for a moment, therefore, indulge in a dystopic fantasy to grasp the sheer scale of this obfuscation, a statistical elaboration of Jack McConnell’s speculation in a Reform Scotland blog last week. Let’s suppose that Scottish health statistics were treated in the same way as the Scottish educational establishment has been regarding educational measurement.

1. We would not know how many people normally contract respiratory illnesses, and so we would not know if this year was any different at all. All we would have would be doctors’ judgement of whether each of their patients seemed less well than they should be. [Even in normal times, Scotland has no routine monitoring of pupils’ attainment by objective standards, only a summary of teacher judgements.]

2. If someone died this spring and summer with a mysterious respiratory illness, we would not know whether that was because of the illness or because of their parents or because of their neighbourhood or because of their genes. [For a child’s progress in a specific school year, no set of Scottish educational data separates the contribution of the school from the contribution of the parents. No routine data allow a distinction to be drawn between inequality due to the family and inequality due to the neighbourhood. And no-one in the Scottish educational establishment will even begin to talk about genetics, despite Scottish researchers being among the world experts in the complex ways in which genes interact with the environment to influence our behaviour.]

3. If someone was admitted to hospital with this mysterious respiratory illness, the doctors could not find out what the previous state of their lungs had been. If the person stayed in hospital for more than a day, the successive shifts of nurses and doctors would not know what had happened to the patient during previous shifts. If the patient developed secondary infections, there would be no way of assessing whether doing that was common among people admitted at around the same time. [No aspect of a pupil’s progress through Scottish schools is tracked longitudinally over time, unlike in England which has been doing this for more than a decade. It may be that the new Scottish National Standardised Assessments will eventually allow this, but the present crisis has put paid to that for many years.]

4. If a hospital was particularly successful at dealing with the mysterious infection, there would be no way of knowing whether this was because of the skill of the staff, the prior health of the catchment area, or luck. [The Scottish government refuses to publish data on schools in a way that can inform valid comparisons. For three decades, the Scottish answer to the challenge that publishing only a few statistics on schools can be misleading is to publish none at all. This would be analogous to a hospital’s not publishing data on recovery rates from Covid-19 because they did not routinely publish recovery rates from anything. That would be witch-doctor levels of obscurantism.]

5. In this year of economic meltdown, mental-health collapse, and the chaos of children’s education, we would know nothing about whether these deliberately induced catastrophes had in fact bought some amelioration of the health crisis that is at the core of it all. We would have no statistical information on the number of Covid-19 cases, the length of patients’ stay in hospital, the possible side-effects after recovery, or deaths. [That’s where this blog started: the Scottish government has decided not to collate any statistical data on children’s attainment and progression this year.]

Given the complacency of every aspect of the Scottish governing class – not just in education, but seemingly on everything – it’s difficult to be optimistic that the end of the Covid-19 crisis will lead to anything better. But two smidgeons of hope are just about possible. One is that the health dystopia imagined here has not come about. We do have health statistics. They are published independently of government and of providers (hospitals, doctors, nurses). The debate in the last three months has not been whether to publish them, but how to make sure that what is published is valid. Maybe the analogy with education will be cogent.

The other source of optimism is that we are not an island. One aspect of human activity that will probably have risen in status as a result of the global crisis is proper science – real, well-designed, evidence-based, hard evidence. And central to that has been numbers. Everyone can see that statistics have been crucial to understanding and tackling the epidemic. The global pressure for statistical measurement is therefore likely to increase. Scotland would surely not be so parochial as to resist an international movement of that kind. Would it?

Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy, Edinburgh University and a member of Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform.