The Head of Department’s Guide to Data in Schools

As Head of Department you’re already juggling a team of teachers, several classes of students and pressure from above – getting to grips with your data might feel like a time-intensive, stressful, tedious task on an endless to-do list. We’ve been there. 

But knowledge is power – or more accurately, understanding is power. When you truly understand how the data you’re collecting can impact individual student performance and your results as a department, that’s when things really start to get exciting. 

Although it might feel like a world away right now, getting on top of your data is actually closer than you think. What you need is an accurate, accessible view of the data you already have so you can chart student performance in real time  – not just a tick-box job to do at each data point, or a collection of numbers that goes into a black hole which you never have time to action or respond to.

In this guide for school Head of Departments and senior faculty members, we’ll give you an in-depth overview of how to properly make use of meaningful data to improve student performance, and get you back in the driver’s seat so you can feel totally in control of where you, your department and your students are headed.

What You Need to Know About Data

With the release of Ofsted’s new framework – which dramatically changes the way internal data will be used in schools – many Head of Departments have been left wondering what exactly it is they need to do.

So, we’ve digested the expectations set out by Ofsted and below you’ll find our suggestions of what this means in practical terms.

In essence, Ofsted wants to ensure you show an understanding of the impact internal assessment data can have on developing pupil progression and teaching strategies. 

Ofsted aren’t going to look at your data to prove progress, they’re asking you how you use it to show where your students are at today and inform you of what next steps need to be taken to move forward.

There are three main things that will support you as a Subject Leader, and which also demonstrate great practice to Ofsted:

  • Share your assessment plan with your teams and the school leadership team. It’s important you ensure your assessment plan represents an efficient use of teachers’ time and resources. You should be able to use your data to explain why you’re doing the assessments you’re doing, and specify the actions you expect to take following those assessments.
  • The data you collect as a department should clearly be used by your teachers and students. Giving your teachers the guidance and ability to analyse their own data means they can immediately put impactful actions into practice in the classroom.
  • Use data to support your leadership decisions. The data you collect should inform what you do in the classroom, and influence your wider departmental strategy to support students in making the necessary progress.

Creating an Assessment Plan

Getting your department’s assessment plan right is crucial to the success of your students, teaching team and, ultimately, the performance of the whole school. 

Sometimes, it might feel like your hands are tied when it comes to these sorts of decisions, but it is completely possible to work within the framework provided by your school and create an assessment plan that meets your needs. You’ll want to start by communicating this explicitly in your plan, discussing your goals and the reasons for the changes with your team so they’re on board from the start. 

Key things to consider when putting together an effective assessment plan:

  • The purpose of each assessment
  • Creating a formative (as opposed to just summative) aspect
  • Turning each assessment into a learning tool rather than just a measurement
  • What the required resources are
  • What action you will take following data collection
  • Potential challenges in getting your whole team onboard

Reviewing your Subject Assessment Strategy can be a big job, and it might take a couple of years before you absolutely nail it, but believe us when we say it’s worth the time investment. When you have good quality data from your assessments, you can generate vast improvements quickly across the whole school. 

What Does ‘Meaningful Data’ Really Mean?

To be meaningful, your data has to have these three attributes: accuracy, reliability, and validity.

  • Accuracy means your data is being measured well. You need to collect data that reflects the exam board outcomes, considers the weighting of each component, and uses the latest grade boundaries and suggested potential percentage increases.
  • Reliability means your data must have consistency from assessment to assessment per class, as well as consistency across each department from the teachers in that team. In other words, your data is reliable if your measurements are consistent across assessments and classes.
  • Validity means your data is actually measuring what you intend to measure. If you’re using the same methodology used by the exam board, your data will be valid.

Bringing Focus Back to the Students

Meaningful data is important, but it’s essential that your focus is always on the people the data is being collected for – the students. Data is almost useless if it can’t be applied, and the only way it can be effectively applied is to get buy-in from the students it’s impacting. As much as we’d like to, we can’t make the changes for them. The students themselves have to drive their own progress.

There are three crucial players your school data needs to reach for it to be effective

  • Your pupils. When a student takes ownership over their data, they take ownership over their results. Think about it – it’s incredibly motivating to discover you’re at position A, know what you need to do to get to position B, and then see your actions impacting that progression. There’s nothing more empowering than feeling in control of your own outcomes, and it’s no exception for your students.
  • Your teachers. The more your teachers are involved in the process of data analysis and interpretation, the more they will care. Show them exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing, how the calculations work, and what they’re impacting. When your team really understand what their data means, they’ll feel more confident in the direction they need to take their students, and in turn, improve their planning and delivery.
  • The parents. If there were ever a group estranged from school data, it’s the students’ parents. A lot of parents are highly concerned about their children’s educational outcomes, but if they aren’t being given the needle-moving information, they can feel shut out and disconnected. Parents can be an integral part of students achieving excellent results, but to play a valuable role they need to be invested in the right areas. Show them the data, show them the next steps for their child, and show them how they can help facilitate the forward movement.

In summary: getting the right people on board is crucial for data to have an impact. Once you get your data into the right hands, everything will change.

Being able to accurately predict grades feels like a superpower and a decent tracking system will help you do it. On the other hand, unpredicted poor grades can make you feel like you’ve lost control. This can lead to a spike in anxiety, a drop in confidence and sleepless nights desperately trying to determine what went wrong. We’ve been there, and the best way to deal with it is to ask the right questions and create an action plan to move forward.

When Exam Results Don’t Match Your Predictions

Don’t justify it with external factors. As tempting as it is to say it was because the grade boundaries went up, the paper was extra hard or the targets were too high, these reasons aren’t productive. Focus on the things you can control, like your department’s assessment practice and data tracking methods:

Transitioning From a Spreadsheet to a Tracker

As a Head of Department or School Leader, you know why data is important and what kind of data you need to make an impact, but it’s not enough to simply cross your fingers and hope your ‘DIY spreadsheet’ is up to scratch. 

If you’re using a spreadsheet to keep on top of your data: 

  • You can’t share that data without a good deal of hassle
  • It’s not easily comparable across classes and subjects
  • There is an overwhelming amount of manual input and grade calculation required
  • Even if you lock and protect cells, someone will mess up the formulas!

In short, it’s just not possible to gather, analyse, and share the kind of meaningful data you need with a spreadsheet. Not without spending copious hours curating it. And we’re sure it feels unbearable to consider adding ‘manual data tracking’ onto your daily to-do list.

A spreadsheet simply isn’t enough. So then, how do you actually get in control of your data in a way that’s manageable? 

You need a tracker.

A tracker is a comprehensive system that does the heavy lifting for you, providing on-the-spot access to key data and information for each pupil, each class, and for the whole cohort. It allows important information to be accessed by all main stakeholders, at all times. It’s easy to access, and tells you everything you need to know, exactly when you need to know it, without any barriers to obtaining important information.

What’s more, the data from a tracker supports you in choosing what content you need to deliver before exams in order to achieve the greatest impact. Then, come exam time, you’ll be able to predict – almost to a single percent – exactly what grade outcomes will be.

Switching from a spreadsheet to a tracker is a no-brainer. It makes total sense for your time, energy and outcomes. But then, we would say that wouldn’t we? Whether you do it through Excel, GoogleSheets or use the Pupil Progress tracking system – make sure that you invest time or money in to a tracker – don’t just use a spreadsheet.

  • Do you formally assess all parts of the course? 
  • Do all members of your team use the same assessments? 
  • Is there a consistent approach to marking assessments across the team?

Focusing your post-results day efforts on the things that are in your control puts you back in the driver’s seat. Connect with your team and ask helpful questions like, how can we work together to avoid this for this next cohort of students?

Don’t beat yourself up about unpredicted poor results – every teacher has experienced their fair share. Instead, get a clear action plan together about how you plan to improve your data and share it with your team.

What A Good Tracker Should Do For You

There are 5 overarching things a good tracker should do for you:

  • Calculate grades exactly as the exam boards do. The core design of the tracker should be based on exact exam board specifications. This ensures that when August rolls around, you won’t be left guessing which grades your students will get – you’ll be able to tell with close-to-perfect accuracy which grade each student is likely to receive.
  • Provide fast and easy analysis on the impact of assessments. That means cross-analysis of previous performance by being able to add multiple mocks, personalised assessments, end of topic tests, and use all of these to calculate a working-at-grade. 
  • Convert mini-tests to a grade to gauge the working-at grade. Calculating accurate grades involves lengthy calculations if you do them manually, so it’s paramount that your tracker can do these calculations for you to keep mini-tests in line with the final grade of each assessment.
  • Allow you to share your data with key stakeholders – students, teachers and parents. Being able to provide an up-to-date picture of a student’s current grade and progress is crucial for informing their next steps. A good tracker will allow you to quickly generate reports to hand out to students and parents, as well as give other teachers access to all your data from anywhere.
  • Support you to calculate accurate grade forecasts. The key word here is calculate – with a tracker you’re no longer just making a guess, you’re using the numbers to give you the most up to date and accurate prediction. That way, when you meet with your team and line manager to discuss the overall picture of whether you and your cohort are on target, you aren’t just hoping you are, you know whether or not you are.

In Summary

When you’re in control of your data, you’re in control of your teaching. 

You get to create a teaching plan based on real, hard facts, and you get to see the impact of your hard work in the classroom – it’s all right there in the numbers. 

Having a tracking system makes the whole data tracking and analysis process a hundred times more efficient and manageable, and puts you back in control. Even more importantly, it gives you the assurance that you’re actually making a difference in pupils’ lives: which is the whole reason you got into teaching in the first place, right?

Barnaby Grimble

Chief Product Officer



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