• James Butler

Children Are Stories, Not Statistics

The other evening my wife was watching ‘Becoming’ the Michelle Obama documentary on Netflix. I must admit, to my own shame, that I have not really followed the life of this amazing woman but there is no doubt in my mind that she is rightly an inspiration to billions.


In one section of the documentary, Michelle is sat with a group of young women. They are discussing their lives, the challenges they face and their hopes for their future. What comes out clearly is that Mrs Obama loves learning about their backstories. She gives each one of them direct attention and clearly enjoys empathising with their lived experience.

We focus too much on stats and not enough on stories.’

Michelle Obama clearly believes in the power of people’s stories and encourages the young women to not allow themselves to be reduced to a statistic. One young lady talks about how she currently studies all day at school, works because her parents cannot, brings food for her family and studies overnight. Obama states “That story, with all the highs and lows, and what seems so ordinary, and what seems like nothing to you, is your power.”

I wonder how we could relate this to education. There is no doubt that there is an obsession within our field for statistics. Reducing children to numbers so that we can put a falsehood of accountability on schools/teachers and ‘catch-up” students to where we think they need to be. In that cacophony of numbers and assessment I fear we have lost track of what really matters, the power of children’s individual stories.

Assessment in education, particularly for under 18s, is largely based around test based activities in the UK. A Levels, GCSEs, SATs at 11 and 7, Phonics Assessment at 6 and (coming in September 2020) Reception Baseline Assessment for 4 year olds. However, we have to question the validity of this methodology. Certainly, when applied to younger children, the validity of the method is very much a sphere for debate. As Dubiel says “Young children do not have the knowledge of the rituals of the test process, generally aren’t aware that there is a ‘right’ answer, and often respond to the questions with their own unconventional or creatively uninformed perspective, thus creating data that doesn’t necessarily demonstrate what they really know.”

How do we reconcile this? Clearly test based assessment is convenient and it gives us a snapshot of where children are and their next steps. The problem is that it does not take account of children’s wider experience, their ‘story’. We are using deeply questionable data for accountability and to measure children. Test data does not take into account the individual experience of our learners. The 11 year old wh0 has spent their entire primary experience worried about their mother at home for who they are their primary carer, the GCSE student who works a 40 hour week to put food on the table for their family or the 4 year old who has been separated from their friends to do a baseline assessment with an unfamiliar adult in a sideroom.

There is another method of assessment though. A method that has a history of providing reliable data, an academic backing and a rigorous approach to finding children’s next steps and plugging ‘the gap’. Observational assessment has long been used in early years settings as the primary method of assessing children. This requires teachers to engage with children on an individual level, find out what interests them and interweave into the curriculum/environment opportunities for children to further their knowledge, skills and experience. The data generated takes account of children’s genuine experiences and their wider ‘story’. To quote Dubiel again,

“Teacher-led observational assessment, properly supported and moderated, provides accurate and reliable information”

Early years practitioners engage with the ‘story’ around the child. The document that guides the early years curriculum, Development Matters, has the ‘unique child’ at its very core and puts the child at the centre of the learning process. I am in no doubt that high quality qualitative assessment would be a far more reliable and rigorous way to assess children and provide real accountability for teachers and schools.

Applying this up through education presents a challenge for teachers and school leaders. It requires a radical shift in how we measure ability, attainment and potential. How children perform in test based assessments cannot be used as a measure, we must instead engage with a child’s ‘story’. The child who lives in a women’s refuge with their mother, but still learns, has a greater potential and attainment level than the child from the stable family. In our current system the latter is more likely to test well but the obstacles the former has to overcome to simply arrive in the classroom are much greater. By putting the child at the centre of their learning we can ensure that we are measuring their progress rather than their ability to perform against a yardstick that takes no account of who they are.

Ofsted and the Department for Education would also have to adjust their accountability measures, putting trust in teachers to do what is right for individual children. Inspection would have to become a broad conversation, allowing the school to tell its individual story. We know, as Sean Harford of Ofsted said in December, schools in disadvantaged areas are less likely to be judged ‘good’. From looking at inspection reports, this is largely down to the ‘value added’ these schools provide their children. An unfair measure given the ‘story’ of their children.

The practical steps we can take now, in the post Covid climate, is to begin engaging with individual children again. Use the improved ratios, 1-15, to begin placing children at the centre of their learning. Teaching complex knowledge and skills in ways that are meaningful and relatable to our pupils. When it comes to assessment, instead of putting data on a spreadsheet, encourage teachers to give their honest opinions of how children are progressing against their individual starting point. Encourage the use of high quality observational assessment rather than the pointless task of marking books in a variety of colours.

The time is now to re engage with children as individuals and to stop seeing them as just statistics. We must see the ‘power of their story’.

References (I’m not doing it properly because it’s a blog post not an academic essay, deal with it)

Jan Dubiel EARLY YEARS Beware Tests



Development Matters in the Early Years

Foundation Stage (EYFS)

Ofsted: Schools with deprived pupils less likely to be 'good'

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