The school research lead, the 5 Whys and appraising school data ?

As a school research lead one of your key tasks will be to help colleagues interpret the  quantitative data which is generated by your school.  So in this post I am going to suggest that we look at a technique called the ' five whys,' which you can use to  analyse data in a way that will help get to the very heart of any underlying issue (Pojasek, 2000).  In doing so, we will use a case-study where last year's GCSE results in a particular department have been especially disappointing

Asking ‘why’ five times

The ‘five whys' is a simple technique, which involves asking the question ‘why’ at least five times so that you can get to the root cause of a problem.  The process tends to come to an end when it is no longer possible to come up with an answer to ‘why’.    But first let's look at what happens when you ask 'why' only once and then come up with a fairly 'lazy' answer

Problem: A subject’s examination results are substantially below the previous year’s results and the 1 why

Q Why are this department's examination results below those of the previous year

A Because the both the Head of Department and teacher who taught this subject are either newly qualified and relatively inexperienced, who need support and improvement targets

However we know from the work of (Crawford and Benton, 2017) that almost all of the change in a school's examination results can be explained by changes in year to year changes in the pupil cohort.  So let's have a go with the 5 whys

Problem: A subject’s examination results are substantially below the previous year’s results - the 5 whys

Q Why are examination results below the previous year’s results
A Because this year a weaker cohort of students took the subject

Q Why did a weaker cohort of student take the subject this year
A Because ‘stronger’ students who would normally take this subject chose other subjects.

Q Why did the stronger students choose other subjects 
A Because in the year before the students chose their ‘options’, they had been taught predominantly by non-specialist teachers who were adequate rather than inspiring 

Q Why did a non-specialist teachers deliver this subject
A Because all teachers had to have a full timetable

Q Why did all teachers have to have a full timetable
A Due to financial pressures it was not viable to have teachers on ‘light’ timetables

Pojaskek (200)) identifies a number of benefits which come from asking 'why' five times.  First, once you have got the hang of it, it's a pretty quick and easy technique to use.  Second, it helps you think through an issue so that you can drill down to the underlying cause of the problem.  Third, it may help you change your perception of the root cause of a problem.  That said, there a couple of clear challenges in using the 'five whys' and these include the need for strong facilitation skills - as the focus is on getting to the root cause of an issue rather than allocating blame. There's also the issue that there may be multiple issues in play - so it may be difficult to isolate the root cause

And some final words

In these times of acute financial pressures on schools it needs to be emphasised that decisions often have long-term consequences - and what may be a quick fix for the current year, may cause substantive problems in years to come.


CRAWFORD, C. & BENTON, T. 2017. Volatility happens: Understanding variation in schools’ GCSE results : Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessmentn.

POJASEK, R. B. 2000. Asking“Why?” five times. Environmental Quality Management, 10, 79-84.