TM4T NQT - The Numbers Game

It is a bit odd - explaining the numbers to NQTs, that is. Why? Well, the fact is that many experienced teachers, and certainly a lot of school leaders, just don't understand the numbers. It is therefore possible that you - an NQT - may know more about the numbers than a lot of your colleagues after reading this page.

The reason it is here, though, is important. The numbers game isn't a piece of knowledge, it is a skill. A skill that needs to be learnt, and ideally learnt early in your career. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but it won't help them to enjoy puppyhood.

I don't want to waffle on with too much theory. Here's an anecdote which explains the principle. The text has been redacted to ensure anonymity, expanded to ensure clarity, and modified slightly to make me appear wise and heroic...

James was our newest deputy head. Quite young and actually looked younger than he was. He was aware of this, and employed his boyish charm ruthlessly to disarm and persuade old-timers like me.

'I know you guys are busy...' he began. Sympathetic face.  '...but this new KS3 data is really important...' Bright smile.  '... and the good news is that it won't take long!! A really simple little form. About a minute per student for each subject.'

A minute? Well that's not unreasonable is it?

[  I should explain that we're a fairly large, pretty average, and mostly well subscribed comprehensive: six forms in each year group. I'm head of Business and ICT. At KS3, our little angels have the privilege of one lesson a week of ICT and one a fortnight of Business). There are four teachers in the department, one part-time. ]

I did the numbers game... but first, I went and checked out exactly what James was asking us to do.  Then I went back with the numbers.  'I've filled out the form myself, James, and you were a little optimistic - it took 1min and 45 seconds per student...'.  James looked relieved - that still didn't sound a lot. '... but I teach two ICT classes in Y7, two in Y8 and two in Y9. That's 6 x 30 students: 180 in all... at  1 min and 45 seconds per student, that's... (check this if you don't believe me) that's nearly five and a half hours of  extra work, just for me, for ICT alone.'

James is not an unreasonable man, and he agreed to think again.

Now, I don't want to labour the point, but it is a point that is actually worth labouring.. Clerical forms filled in by hand are time-consuming - surely the answer lies in technology. Here's what happened next (redacted as before)

James was back again. 'I'm so glad we ditched the form...' he said. 'Instead, we've put it on the computer, and now it really is quick and easy. All the student details are already there, and you just need to key in U or S or G or O against their name (Unsatisfactory, Satisfactory, Good, Outstanding). And that's it!!'

One click? Well that's not unreasonable is it?

'Sounds great. Show me...' I asked.  James turned his PC screen so I could see it and opened up the data entry software.  'Just click on a student's name...' he said 'And their record opens up. You don't even need to type 'ICT', you just make sure you type in the right box. This took a bit of work for the Network Support team to set up, but it will save everyone time, and that's something that we should be doing more of - don't you agree?'. 

I nodded. 'Then..' James continued 'Just click here, key in U or whatever, then click Save'.  James clicked Save.  'We definitely need to avoid wasting teachers' time. Though this is quicker for the girls in the office too. Teachers' time is key though. The important thing is the learning of the students, even though the data is clearly of value too. We need to get our priorities right. Don't you agree?'.

I didn't answer.  While James had been clicking, I had been looking at the clock on his wall. The face that never lies.  I was ready to do the numbers game again. 'The thing is, James, I see these kids once a week at most, and I can't just enter U or O or G or S - I need a bit of time to remember who the student actually is...'  James looked skeptical. 'Five seconds, maybe...'.  James looked relieved.  '... and I don't know if you noticed, because you were explaining about the Importance of Learning, but the student record actually took six seconds to appear on the screen, and when you clicked Save it took another seven seconds before you could carry on.' I think at this point James knew what was coming. That makes a total of (5+6+7) eighteen seconds per student. Times 180 students. That is 54 minutes of data entry for ICT alone. Now, an hour's extra work isn't really a problem, but watching a little hourglass spin for 45 minutes really is....

Now I really wish I could appear a hero at this stage, but I cannot lie: I was told to just go away and do it anyway, and I agreed.

So: the point here is not that you should always argue with your boss, but that you should be able to plan how long tasks are going to take, and in order to do this, you need to know your numbers, really know them off by heart, without having to figure them out each time. As a minimum, you should know:

- how many lessons you teach in each subject, in each year group
- how many different classes you take, with approximate numbers in each class
- how many different students you teach in total
- how many courses you teach. (If you're not sure about the difference between lessons, classes and courses, read more here)

The idea here is simple: when you are given a piece of new work, you need to be able to figure out - using basic maths alongside a short try-out - how much work is involved. Of course, in practice, you rarely have a chance to refuse to do tasks, but it is still enormously helpful to know in advance how much work you actually have to do.