International Perspectives: Why teachers remain devoted to data – early years teachers in England as reluctant enactors of post-datafication policy

Written by Alice Bradbury

Teachers in early years settings in England have experienced a significant period of datafication in the last decade. This means that their work has increasingly been dominated by the collection, analysis and processing of data about children and their progress: practices such as organising activities so that certain boxes can be ticked, or taking photographs as evidence. These lead to huge volumes of digital data, usually translated into numerical form. This shapes how the child is understood by the adults around them, and may also shape their future education paths.

Datafication is not simply about changes to practice, however. There are five elements to datafication – the Five P’s. First, practice, as above, and second pedagogy, teaching in ways which produce the right data. Third, priorities, such as teachers spending time inputting data rather than planning, or taking photographs rather than interacting with a child. Fourth, people, as the role of different actors is changed through datafication, so that teachers become data collectors, and children become data to be mined. Finally, we have a shift in how power is distributed, for example in the power of the algorithm to decide if a child is at a ‘good level of development’. Understanding datafication, I argue, involves taking into account all of these five elements (and possibly more).

This period of datafication in the early years in England has arisen due to policy, as the government requires information to be collected on each child, in whatever form of setting they attend, and also requires teachers to conduct two statutory assessments of children aged 4-5, when they first start school (the Reception year). It has also been facilitated by private companies, whose software has provided easy means to collect and store data, while shaping the form and content of data collected.

Recent policy developments, however, have driven a retreat from data, partly in response to the problems of datafication (high workloads, too much ‘box ticking’). For example, a prominent early years advocate stated:

…for years we’ve been supplying ‘data’ to local authorities, Ofsted, PVI owners and management boards and senior leaders in schools. But we were getting things the wrong way round. It was like putting the cart before the horse. (Julian Grenier, blog here)

There have been reforms to both the guidance for children aged 0-4, called Development Matters, and the statutory assessment at the end of Reception, called the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, or EYFSP. In both cases, changes in the required information, a simplification of the labels used, and guidance that less evidence is required, can be described as policy which involves a retreat from data, into a potential post-datafication phase.

My research has begun to explore this phase, beginning with those teachers who took on the reforms before they were statutory (‘early adopters’). In interviews with six early adopter teachers using the new materials, in 2020-21, I found a significant change in practice and focus. Teachers were doing far fewer observations of children, and collecting far fewer photographs and pieces of work. Kirsty, a teacher, told me ‘I used to assess them every half term against Development Matters, and then I would have a tracker and I would report to the Head Teacher and it was very sort of tick-list orientated. Whereas now, I’ve really taken a step back from all of that.’. Similarly Debbie commented ‘we’re having to do a lot less focused, fewer focused activities, fewer written observations. It is more really being able to play with the children and get them to know their personal levels’. Thus this move was seen as positive in terms of allowing staff more time with the children, helped by having simpler decisions to make about where children should be labelled. One teacher even described it as ‘liberating’:

It always felt like a bit of a game that you were playing or trying to make these points progress with this system that was never designed for that, and to actually now have that taken away completely is really liberating. (Heather)

Others described it as a more ‘relaxed’ approach.

However, this retreat from data was not total, and the teachers also indicated that they remained committed to collecting data, even when they were not required to. There were still vestiges of the old system present in their discussions of practice, for example in their use of digital platforms: Kirsty explained ‘I think having those photos and those observations is really useful still. I don’t think I would ever not have [platform], except I do find it a useful tool’. Another teacher described how hard it was not to collect data, saying she found it ‘quite hard to kick the habit’. Others worried that they were only able to use the new system because they had the content of the old guidance ‘ingrained’ in their brains; newer teachers would therefore struggle. Thus newer practices were layered over the old, with the importance of collecting data remaining present in their professional practice.

This residual devotion to data was also evident in discussions of demonstrating children’s progress; teachers asked ‘if I go to this [new system], how will I know they’re on track?’. Others described how people were breaking down the new system of statements into smaller increments, much like the old system, in order to show progress over time. There remained a longing for the certainty offered by data:

as onerous as it was [doing assessments] there was some reassurance to that, that you then had something concrete to do and show someone (Heather).

What these early findings from a post-datafication phase in England show is how embedded systems can become, and how difficult it can be shift how professionals think about a child and their progress. For these teachers, it almost seems as if the progress does not exist, if there is no data to show it, although the child has been learning and developing. The digital version of the child is what needs to be shown to someone, rather than the real child; it has more power and influence. As these changes become more widespread, research will need to explore how datafication continues to shape adults’ and children’s lives, even when not officially required.

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