In Focus: How to use data to solve the student wellbeing puzzle

Educational consultant Matthew Savage explores the role of data in measuring and maximising student wellbeing in schools

Matthew Savage is always in search of the Mona Lisa Effect for student wellbeing

“Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination.” (Andrew Lang, 1844-1912, Scottish poet, novellist, critic and anthropologist)

As someone who speaks and writes about assessment data on a daily basis, my mission is to detoxify and disarm it, reclaiming it from the data drunkards who have used it in the dark or for ill. I wrote a blog piece recently in which I summoned the spirit of Leone to reflect upon “the good, the bad and the ugly” of student-level data, and, whilst it is true that many a teacher is still shy, scared or cynical about data, it is not hard to see why. Even in the enlightened world of international education, where there is more space for progressive practice, necessary disruption and shifted paradigms, there is still insufficient illumination.

“We are whipping up the winds of performativity that already buffet and batter our students every day.”

Whether we are indulging our students’ and parents’ inherited appetite for graded work, chasing arbitrary attainment thresholds set by the pedagogic dilletantes of government, or battling our competitors with the blunt and primitive sword of examination performance, we are whipping up the winds of performativity that already buffet and batter our students every day. If you are reading this magazine, the chances are that you, like the editor Sadie Hollins and me, want to put #wellbeingfirst; but, if we want to do so, we need to harness the power of assessment data to illuminate our path.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle’s maverick detective declares, “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Whilst our professional judgment, and the relationships we forge and conversations we enjoy with our students, are crucial to our understanding of them, it is the height of arrogance or naïveté or both for us to believe that, as a result, we “know” who they are. Children and young people, like adults, wear manifold masks, thickly and well, to hide their struggles and difficulties, and we need to go so much further, and deeper, to see beneath this conscious or unconscious veneer; we need data.

Thankfully, there are so many ways in which we can measure student wellbeing, and, in so doing, protect, enhance and repair it, and help our students to do so too. However, even for the best intentioned international educator, it can seem difficult to know where to start. It is with this in mind that I have written this article, as a means to suggest a data-led, data-fed approach to wellbeing, and illuminate your pursuit of the #wellbeingfirst school. There are some fantastic people working in this field, each of whom will bring just as much to the table here as I aim to do, and so this article is neither definitive nor exhaustive. That said, I hope it will give you food for thought and an appetite for action, as you seek to measure what really matters.

Observational Data

Firstly, and as an extension to what we have always done intuitively as educators, we have observational data. This includes what I call “school gate” observation, the opinions we form even through an authentic but informal greeting as a student enters school or moves around the campus during the day.

Of course, this only becomes data when we record it, but there are already apps, such as tootoot, through which we can record and track such observations. Many schools also choose to build observational data around a set of values or attributes, and, indeed, I was privileged to co-found a student rewards programme, Polio Points, back in 2012, which gamified the IB Learner Profile by converting observable and observed attributes to funded polio vaccines for children around the world. And those of you who have experienced the positive impact of the Leuven Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement, not just within their original early years setting but when applied throughout the school, will know how powerful can be this observational data in identifying and supporting student wellbeing.

Check-in Data

Observational data, however, by its very nature, can only show us what the student permits us to see, whereas we have to try to see the world through their eyes. This is where I encourage schools to use check-in data. Many early years and primary educators have been using this kind of data for years, derived from a set of “mood cups” into which the children put their named lollipop stick at the start of each session. However, it would not be too much of a stretch to envisage a situation whereby all classrooms had a tablet mounted at the entrance on which students press one of five HappyOrNot®-style emojis as they come in.

“I strongly suggest that schools make a shortlist of researched products, and ask a student focus group to test drive and select the final one.”

The only limitation of this tool is that it would only give anonymised, aggregated data, useful on its own terms but not that window into the individual child that will benefit them, and us, most. Here is where a string of providers have demonstrated that ‘there’s an app for that’, with the likes of Upstrive, Youhue, School Day, and YouHQ offering intuitive, student-friendly platforms through which for students to “check in” digitally and discretely. If going down this road, I strongly suggest that schools make a shortlist of researched products, and ask a student focus group to test drive and select the final one.

Survey Data

These micro data lenses are perfect for identifying issues as soon as they arise, and intervening equally swiftly, but a macro lens is also important as a means to dig much more deeply into the student experience with data too granular to render daily use impractical. Now it is the turn of the survey, administered once, or perhaps twice, a year, to garner a student- and school-level picture of wellbeing across the school. CIS schools will find the Community Survey can be adapted to include this lens, and schools in Dubai will already be using KHDA’s Student Wellbeing Census.

However, the majority of schools with whom I work use the PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School) survey, a comprehensive attitudinal and wellbeing survey developed by a team of educational psychologists twenty years ago and standardised thoroughly to apply to our students today. Schools can use data on each of the nine attitudinal measures, and I encourage the application of an additional filter, grouping the measures into the three domains of Self, Study and School. The impact of PASS can be, and has been, transformational for schools across the world, and was something of an epiphany for me when first I found it. Finally, there is also a range of specialist survey tools from the field of psychology, including those from the Anna Freud centre in the UK (who have created one for staff too), the WEMWBS survey from Warwick and Edinburgh universities, and Peggy Kern’s EPOCH measure.

Counselling Data

I had the privilege to work for several years with an especially data literate school counsellor, which opened my eyes to the extent to which a school can use counselling data to provide an additional lens on, and measurement of, wellbeing across the school community. It goes without saying that this data needs to be used carefully and sensitively, respecting the sacrosanct confidentiality at the heart of the counsellor-client relationship, and with the counsellor as the consenting gatekeeper. But if we are serious about using student wellbeing data strategically and at a whole-school level, then this data source can be like gold dust.

“It goes without saying that this data needs to be used carefully and sensitively.”

For example, data on which groups are using counselling most and least (such as a particular year group, students with a particular, protected characteristic, or, perhaps, a particular section of the adult staff) could help shape school strategy and target resources; data on which topics, needs or challenges are most and least common could inform a school’s advisory or pastoral programmes; and data on referral routes, number of sessions, and outside referrals, could also be of significant strategic use. For school boards, longitudinal trends in terms of appropriate counselling data can be invaluable and eye-opening too, and could even provide a compelling case for investing in greater counselling capacity.

Pastoral Data

Finally, we already have access to, and use for other purposes, a raft of data which could actually provide invaluable insights into the wellbeing of the whole school community. For example, if you think about the wealth of pastoral data most schools will collect – on anything from attendance and punctuality to behaviour concerns and even achievement and progress metrics – this could all be interpreted, in some ways and to some extent, as a manifestation of student wellbeing.

Similarly, just as whether a student comes regularly and on time to school and to lessons is likely to be an indicator of wider wellbeing issues beneath the surface, so can staff attendance and punctuality be a canary in the same coal mine. Even student and staff retention statistics, whilst influenced also by a variety of other factors, could be interrogated to identify any possible wellbeing data hidden within. In other words, if any information is data, then we are receiving data all the time, and, if we look closely and through a wellbeing lens, we may be surprised by what we find.

By this point in the article, many educators will, understandably, be asking, “Isn’t there such a thing as too much data?” And yes, of course, there is – but this will vary from school to school, and will depend on the capacity of the school to collect, collate, analyse and visualise the data, so its stories can be told to the relevant stakeholders in an accessible and digestible format.

“As educators or leaders, we should not feel responsible for every aspect of the mental health and wellbeing of each member of our community.”

To implement all the tools I have described here would be a big ask for any school, and would also take time; however, I would also point out that we have collected enormous amounts of academic data for years, often without impact. I wonder what would happen if we jettisoned any such extraneous metrics, and made the measurement of wellbeing the central plank of our data strategy. Surely, if we resolutely put Maslow before Bloom, and if there was equity and justice in terms of the access enjoyed by every member of the school community to positive wellbeing, many of the other things would simply fall into place anyway.

Wellbeing is a complex and culturally rooted concept, often misused and equally often misunderstood. It is important that, as educators or leaders, we should not feel responsible for every aspect of the mental health and wellbeing of each member of our community. However, in my opinion, one of the most powerful functions of data in schools is to get the right conversations started. If the focus of our data strategy – the data we collect and what we do with it – were wellbeing, then we would also be having the right conversations. In this way, we would even better be able to keep #wellbeingfirst. This article has been about the lampposts we have at our disposal; the next step will be for us actually to use them for illumination.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools magazine, out now.