What are schools for these days? The myth of data…

Published by Professor Cate Watson

I was recently asked to give a keynote at a teacher conference on the subject of the attainment gap. I have to report that my address aroused no interest at all in my audience (possibly because I had raised false expectations by starting off with what I hoped was a humorous remark about having misheard my brief and thought I was being asked to speak about the entertainment gap – it was all downhill after that).  However, this was a salutary lesson – on a number of fronts. I had decided to craft my talk around Bob O’Hagen’s book Modern educational myths, published in 1999, to explore the extent to which these myths were still alive and well (nearly 20 years on) in current Scottish education policy, and whether any new ones had emerged. First, I went through a list of ideological premises that O’Hagen argued underpinned educational policy. Having supplied my audience with red and green cards I asked each of  them to raise their green card if they agreed that the premise was relevant to Scottish education today, and their red card if they disagreed. I sought to shock them by revealing how much current Scottish educational policy under the Scottish National Party, particularly as set out in the national improvement framework (SG 2017), resembled English educational policy of the Thatcher and Major years.

The points were (O’Hagen, 1999):

  1. Children acquire important knowledge predominantly (if not exclusively) by being taught by teachers in schools and colleges.
  2. Children know much less now than in former times and less than children in comparable countries.
  3. This can be remedied by defining what should be learned and by increasing the quantity and quality of teaching in schools.
  4. Important knowledge can be specified in a national curriculum.
  5. Quantity can be increased by setting minimum amounts of time children must spend in front of teachers and on homework.
  6. Quality can be increased by specifying national standards for pedagogical skills and methods.
  7. The success of these remedies can be measured through national testing.
  8. As our children acquire this important knowledge the economic performance of the country will improve.
  9. Since this is a key area for government it justifies intervention in education as a duty of government.

To my surprise (though heaven knows why I should have been surprised, given the results of other recent polls) they roundly rejected five of these points including the first, that children mostly acquire important knowledge through being taught in school (and this was virtually unanimous).  (The others, to varying degrees, were 2,3,4 and 5). This being the day of the general election enabled me to make a joke about the danger of snap elections, which did draw a laugh, but it set me to thinking about what they thought schools (and they) were there for which had clearly undergone a fairly radical shift since I was a teacher.

Having deliberated on this question I think I have an answer, at least a hypothesis – and this is related to a new myth that Bob O’Hagen and his co-authors could hardly have dreamed of not quite 20 years ago – the myth of data in the drive for school improvement. My work with teachers and especially aspiring headteachers, has highlighted the extent to which schools have become accountable through data in recent years. To be sure, accountability was around in the 1990s, but it has become vastly more pervasive and sophisticated since then. As a growing educational research literature attests (see, for example, Williamson 2016) the fetishisation of data  is having a profound effect, fundamentally reconceptualising the education system. Schools are now becoming machine readable and pupils are increasingly PISA-shaped. Is it perhaps the case that teachers no longer see their main purpose as teaching pupils but instead as tracking and monitoring them. Through the burgeoning of learning analytics (Wilson et al 2017) pupils are data. Is it the case that we should no longer think of schools as sites for either reproduction or transformation but for codification? And maybe we should not see this as a regrettably reductive step in which what is human is stripped out of the educational calculation. Could it be a rational approach aimed at future proofing the workforce in the age of the robot? At least they will be able to understand us.

About the author

Professor Cate Watson is Professor of Educational Leadership and Professional Learning within the Faculty of Social Sciences. As well as publishing extensively in these areas she is also interested in humour as a methodology for the social sciences and is the author of Comedy and Social Science: towards a methodology of funny (Routledge). Cate is also the leader of the Faculty’s Education Studies Research Group. Read more.


O’Hagen, B. (1999) Modern educational myths. London: Kogan Page

Williamson, B. (2016) Digital education governance: An introduction. European Educational Research Journal15(1) 3–13.

Wilson, A., Watson, C., Thompson, T-L, Drew, V. & Doyle, S. Learning analytics: challenges and limitations. Teaching in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/13562517.1332026