Spot the Statistical Anomaly

15 September 2014
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tables

Bo Hetherington

I am an art teacher in a comprehensive school in a deprived area. The other day an idea struck me with greater clarity than usual. I was teaching a class of GCSE students and helping one girl in particular. On this occasion she smelt so badly that I could hardly inhale without choking. I worked closely with her for approximately five minutes. trying to inhale as little as possible and only breathe through my mouth. When I moved away from her I stood and watched my class.

One student had asked if she could sleep during my lesson because she had been up all night dealing with her new-born sister as her mother was unable to attend to her. She had her head on the table. Another had a TA (teaching assistant) working closely with him as he has the learning age of an eight-year-old.

The lesson was interrupted by a younger girl who had walked out of a maths lesson because she had had enough and she needed to find her sister. The two girls live practically on their own as their mother is such a complete alcoholic that she does not function in any capacity. The girl politely asked whether she could stay and as 'on call' were aware of her movements I happily let her sit down and join in.

Another student, who had failed to do any work for the past two hours was now working quietly: she is on the police aware terror suspect list and often makes threats of bomb making and suicide.

Two other students were drawing on their arms. One has a lot of scars from self harming. It was the first lesson back for her after being kept in 'inclusion' for 7 weeks because she refused to change the colour of her hair. The other was possibly abused when she was younger - the investigation is ongoing. The content of the conversation was graphically sexual in nature.

Another student had headphones in his ears and was talking loudly about becoming a DJ. There were significant drug references in the conversation and that reminded me that children have often taken drugs before attending school.
One other always arrives and sits doing nothing, throughout every lesson. She has never once producing a single piece of work in the whole year.

These are tiny snippets about only ten students from one class of twenty-two. It is quite an abnormal class for my school but it would not be unusual many others.

Five different groups of kids will pass through my classroom in a day. Every one of the children in every class will have a different story: some may not have eaten properly that day. Others  may feel disengaged as a result of a problem in a previous lesson. One student's mother is dying of cancer and another's father was killed in a car accident last year. An enthusiastic games-player  has seen a promising sports career go up in smoke as a consequence of serious knee reconstruction surgery. Others just find growing up a little bit tough and despite all the love and support from a good family unit they just do  not care enough about school.

All these examples are genuine, and I could give plenty, plenty more, but whatever my students' stories are, it is my job to engage them, motivate them, make them laugh, encourage them to learn, discipline them, listen to them and support them.

The statistical data - the measurements of progress every seven weeks, the marks I award and the feedback I give, what I tell their parents or carers - in the end some of them will surpass their predicted grades, others will not attain them. I will do my best to help them, I will try to encourage them to do their best as they work with me.
But they are human beings, individuals with problems, baggage, self-confidence issues, pressures and passions.
The only thing they have in common is that not one of them is a statistic.

Data is extremely useful sometimes. It works particularly well on a large scale. It works rather less well when applied to a single class or an individual student. I'm not only a teacher, I'm a manager, so I use data every day but I doubt the value of the information that young Samantha attained level 5 in key stage 2 numeracy and therefore should secure a grade B in GCSE  I do refer  to it occasionally, but I just don't treat Samantha as more important than any of the other individuals I teach in any of my classes. I never will.

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