Although the awareness that learning analytics offers a great potential and is an important technology for the future is on the rise in the school sector, it is still very rare to hear about schools actually implementing and using such technology. Therefore we are very happy to be able to present a case from a British school and a primary school to that. Ian Dewes, who is headteacher at Dunchurch Infant School and Nursery, describes how they are working with learning analytics in early years education.
First, for those not familiar with my school’s context, a brief overview of Early Years (EY) education in England. EY is the period of education which covers pre-school education and the first year of a pupil’s time in school (the reception class, where children are four or five years old). Although children are not required to be in school until the start of the first term after their fifth birthday, there has been a trend of children starting in a nursery or school setting at increasingly early ages. Children get fifteen hours (soon to increase to thirty) each week free from the age of three and are in school full-time in reception. Although children are in educational settings from an early age, EY is not formal education. There is an emphasis on play and children choosing activities with practitioners assessing children by observing what they do. These observations are marked against criteria or descriptors published in a document called Development Matters. In my school we have seventy-five children aged three or four in our nursery and a further sixty four and five year old pupils in our reception classes.
A basic premise for all education is that it is vital to know where a child is in their learning in order to plan their next steps, but in EY this can be a challenge. Within Development Matters there are seven areas of learning, split into seventeen sub-areas. Within each area assessments are made against numerous descriptors. A typical reception child will be assessed against descriptors in the 40 – 60 months age band and also the “Early Learning Goals”. With sixty children in our reception classes there may be 8,700 observations made over the course of the year and this assumes that a child is observed doing something once only. The reality is that staff find it difficult to know how many times a child has been observed writing for example, “simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others” or whatever the particular descriptor says. It could be that a colleague saw them doing that twice the week before. Keeping up with observations is difficult. The result in my setting was that we had some children who were not being observed, while other children had been observed doing the same thing ten or more times.
LA have helped significantly in this area. We had been using a product called 2 Build a Profile to record observations on iPads, however were oblivious to the “digital trace” that was being left behind. We began to look at visualisations of the data being created by my colleague’s observations. This gave us a quick and effective way of seeing which parts of the curriculum were covered and which weren’t as well as which children had been observed showing new learning and which were slipping through the net.
The benefits of spotting children we might otherwise be missing are potentially huge. A lot of the research on LA focuses on older students and those at university. The need to track such students is obvious; an eighteen year old undergraduate away from home for the first time can easily be distracted and find themselves at risk failing their course. Although, it may seem unlikely at first, I think there are comparisons between a university student and a four year old in EY. The play-based, child centred approach of the latter gives the child plenty of opportunity to avoid the teacher’s intended learning. LA are helping us to make sure all children get the most out of the learning environment and that none go “missing”.
The impact has been significant. At the end of EY children are judged against the Early Learning Goals and a judgement is made about whether children have reached “a good level of development”. Since we started using LA, the percentage of children reaching this threshold has risen from 57% to 77% and this was a key part of the school recently achieving the highest possible grade in a recent inspection. We are now applying what we have learnt about using LA to the older children in the school. Recent changes to assessment of primary aged (five to eleven year olds) have led to us reviewing our practise. We are using a system called Learning Ladders which is allowing us to put LA at the heart of what teachers do across the school. A colleague of mine, Michelle Maguire spends part of her week preparing visualisation of data to allow teachers to quickly make sense of where there children currently are in their learning and effectively plan their next steps.
Over the last year we have gone some way to realising the potential of LA in our own school, but there is much scope for its use outside of school. Certain elements of the educational framework schools operate in are optional and others are statutory. However, even those elements which are optional have a high take up rate. For example, the “Reception Baseline” introduced in September 2015 while optional was used by the overwhelming majority of schools. This consistency of approach provides an opportunity for LA beyond individual schools. What is more, the onset of a self-improving school system has led to increased opportunities for sharing of data between groups of schools and working towards shared priorities. I look forward to seeing if that potential can be realised.
Ian Dewes is the headteacher at Dunchurch Infant School and Nursery in Warwickshire, England.