On Monday I spoke at the launch of the RSA Open Public Services Network's new report on Empowering Parents, Improving Accountability. The OPSN has also created a related dataset, free for anyone to use. The Guardian has already published the dataset in a way that enables the public to discover more information about any secondary school in England, on a subject by subject basis. Have a play, and tell us what you think.
Here's my speech, partly stolen from an earlier blog, and embellished with a couple of additional post-launch reflections.
If information is power, and power corrupts, does that mean that information corrupts?
Of course not, but at the same time, information will, if it’s useful at all, change behaviours – on the producer and consumer sides. And its those behaviours which determine which children gets which outcomes. If, for instance, as Alison Wolf and others believe, young people have spent 20 years learning useless vocational qualifications, we can’t blame them, or their teachers, or even the exam boards - it’s the creation and publication of particular performance measures that caused this problem
So whenever we publish data, we do need to ask the precautionary principle – ‘will this do any harm?’ For instance the RSA/Pearson Academies Commission recently proposed that schools published data on the racial and socioeconomic nature of their intake. This might drive schools to change behaviours around admissions, but it might also support parents' existing prejudices, and increase segregation.
I believe the dataset that OPSN has created will only do good – it broadens our perceptions of what is a good school. It enables parents and others to take a more personalised, detailed look at the subject-based strengths and weaknesses of each school. It takes its place in plethora of new initiatives that are making similar attempts to make data useful and intelligible, for instance, the FFT's data dashboard, and and Loic Menzies' fantastic efforts, which includes useful financial comparisons between schools.
However, the OPSN grew out of RSA's Public Services 2020 Commission, whose final report centred on the notion of social productivity – that brilliant public services can only be created with rather than for users. This education data project, and possibly all of the other worthwhile attempts to make data more open transparent, is seeing data as a way to make parents better informed consumers of schools. Better information will lead to better choice (or at least, better ‘preferences’), and these choices might drive improved school performance.
Is this too narrow a conception of the potential power of data? Are there ways to use data that will encourage and help consumers of public services to become participants, citizens, co-creators of better outcomes, not just for themselves, but for the wider public good? Imagine a science phd student who wishes to volunteer in a local school, using data to find a school with poor science performance, where she might add most value. Or imagine an arts organisation, tired of working with willing usual suspects, who use data to find cold spots where too few young people are choosing arts GCSEs. If this dataset begins to include post-16 destination data, how might businesses use this to target their engagement with schools? We know from John Hattie’s work that the key way to improve pupil outcomes is to improve the quality of feedback, at all levels. What kinds of data might produce rigorous, productive feedback loops between schools and external stakeholders? In particular, can we use data to enable secondary schools and their feeder primaries to have far more rigorous conversations about the performance of individual children, that might change each others practices? This connects to our recommendations for education in Suffolk and my colleague Louise Bamfield's recent blog about collaboration.
So whilst this is publication step in the right direction I think that the challenge ahead for all those number crunchers and data hackers out there is to publish data in a way that inspires voice as well as choice, engagement as well as exit, and citizenship as well as consumption.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg