By Ernest Jenavs
While there is no shortage of data and evidence captured in schools, it is rarely used to guide school leadership in a meaningful way. Data is commonly used to prove we are doing a good job for parents or inspectors. It is also used to review how the school is doing overall, according to widely used student outcome metrics that we know do not reflect the full value provided by the school. But we can do more – we can use evidence to establish where we are heading and what we need to do to get there.
Why is evidence-informed leadership important?
When I talk about evidence-informed leadership, I mean the notion of basing your organisation’s development priorities on structured evidence of various kinds and then evaluating progress on those priorities regularly. Essentially, it is the opposite of leadership based on a hunch. As a school leader, of course, you are an expert on your schools’ needs. But using evidence as a basis for growth is not just about learning more, it serves a wider purpose in guiding your development efforts.
In his book Measure What Matters, John Doerr highlights four benefits achieved by organisations that set clear objectives with supporting measurable key results.
- Communication: by defining what you as an organisation care about and talking about it, everyone understands what’s important.
- Alignment: having a clear idea of the evidence to be used as success criteria for improvement, various teams can work together with a shared idea of what they are trying to improve.
- Focus: you can’t work on everything simultaneously, so it’s critical to focus on what you want to change – having clear evidence-driven priorities can help you achieve more.
- Accountability: finally, holding yourself accountable as a leadership team is also very important. By saying, ‘I’m hoping to achieve [X]; this is how I’ll measure it’, you help keep your team on track through the ever-changing situation in education.
What evidence can we use?
When it comes to determining what evidence you should use, it’s best to think of what you want to achieve. When I talk to school leaders, they strive for community, communication, passion and every child achieving their potential. These are all great goals, but they are tough to measure compared to factors like attendance and exam results. Many organisations keep those ambitions without any evidence.
But that brings a key risk: without clear evidence to support them, ambitions often remain in speeches, vision documents and motivational posters. At Edurio, we work on using stakeholder feedback to present clear evidence on topics like staff wellbeing, parental engagement, equality, diversity and inclusion, pupil learning environment and other elements of good education. Other sources of evidence can include observation walks, focus groups, idea competitions and analytics enabled by the learning platforms used by the school.
How to use evidence well
With the abundance of data available, and limited time and resources, how do we use evidence well? There is no one way to do it right, but based on our experience working with over 2,000 school leaders, there are five important elements you should consider that can strengthen your use of evidence.
- Long-term commitment: usually, when we measure things, we want to address everything at the same time. However, just like crash diets rarely allow you to keep off extra weight permanently, if you go after everything simultaneously, you’re not building a sustainable system long term. A cycle that we use at Edurio to combat this is known as goal setting, evidence gathering, evidence exploration, conclusions, action and then review and continue this loop. We have outlined this process in our guide to school improvement. By developing your ideas over time and sticking to a consistent approach, your team and community become more engaged.
- Measuring what matters to you: consider the priorities that drive your culture and the issues that make you stand out from others, then gather evidence related to those. Once you’ve identified what matters to you, you can start to think about what data supports this. Our EDI research is an example of a theme that some schools are working on. We provided a research-based framework to address the key elements of EDI that are divided into clear, manageable and focused areas of importance. Setting EDI-specific objectives and metrics and then regularly validating whether you are making progress can help the school work on the same objective much more efficiently than gathering generic feedback without a clear focus.
- Use evidence to support, not punish: one factor that should be conveyed to staff, especially from the beginning of data collection, is that this is an improvement exercise. No one will be punished for lagging in a certain area – quite the opposite, identifying areas for improvement should result in additional support and resource. If you want to collect data to help you improve, all respondents and users of the data should be motivated to seek the honest answer, not what they think is the best answer.
- Involve others: to create a cohesive team, staff must feel included in the decision-making process. This factor is also imperative in evidence-based leadership. In our staff wellbeing study, we found that staff who feel involved in decision-making are more likely to remain part of the school and recommend it to others. You can change your team’s motivation by openly demonstrating how you will deal with their concerns. It may seem obvious to involve your team in decisions, but it’s easy to forget when you’re focused and convinced you know the necessary path forward (and everybody is busy).
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: while it may be tempting to find new and exciting analytic approaches to process your data, processing data is incredibly time-consuming. When working with data, you should look for tools and technology that exist to help you. As a leader, your work isn’t in data management; it’s in how you use the data to explore your school’s future.
By striving to achieve each of these elements, you can build a strong culture of evidence-based leadership in your school, achieving more and building a stronger team in the process!