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It’s Time for Schools to Start Making Better Use of Their Data

February 13, 2018, 10:27 GMT+1
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  • Our schools might be data rich, but they’re programme poor, maintains Anthony David...
It’s Time for Schools to Start Making Better Use of Their Data

Our schools are data-rich environments, yet we’re barely scratching the surface when it comes to the range, scale and sheer quantity of data that’s created in them, day in day out. Why is that?

The data we’re typically familiar with is usually linked in some way to assessment, but our collective confidence in this data has been horrifically eroded within the last
three years.

That’s partly due to seismic changes in assessment which are only now beginning to settle down (and not made any easier by ‘interim’ assessments that are actually nothing of the sort), and partly because of smaller changes in how everything is now evaluated, following the end of RaiseOnline.

Assessment data, however, is not even close to the whole story of a child. What I want to explore here is how schools could – and arguably should – be making better use of their attendance, behaviour, injury and safeguarding data.

“Here, Sir”

Attendance is the most basic piece of data available to schools. Since the 1800s, when schools as we know them first opened, we’ve been legally obliged to keep an accurate register. The importance of this was highlighted last summer, with Jon Platt’s failed attempt to sue Isle of Wight Council for issuing a fine for a school-time holiday.

Debates continue today about children’s need to be in school on time, all the time, but tracking individual pupils is only part of the story.

What about groups? How does this child compare to their year group, the whole school or their ethnic background? What about their attendance compared to this time last year? And who has access to this information?

The last question is arguably the most worrying. Often SIMS and RM’s Integris will be used to collate this information, which is then typically held centrally – and therefore not available for the class teacher, phase leader, head, deputy or whoever to access as and when they need to.

Before schools can even consider assessing a child’s academic outcomes, that child will obviously have to be in school first. The higher the absence rate, the greater the gulf becomes between the children who are frequently absent and those who attend regularly.

Of course, this is far from an exact science – I’m sure we’ve all had friends who seemed able to attain top marks for minimal effort – but children will typically see an impact on their academic outcomes if their attendance is low.

We’re now seeing new, fleet-footed management systems entering the market that attempt to address the gap, in particular Arbor Education, though the ‘old guard’ are attempting to address it too (SIMS notably moved to a cloudbased approach this year).

A final point worth considering is that all management systems, including Arbor Education, Scholarpack, SIMs and RM, are updated via online registers. If your school is still using paper registers – and more are than you’d think – then it really is time to move away.

It can take anywhere from a whole day to a week for a 2-form entry school’s office manager to upload the relevant data to your MIS, costing the school approximately £5,000 a year. Moving to digital registers will immediately release a whole day of a colleague’s time.

Pattern recognition

The ability to compare data (or have systems do so on your behalf) opens up opportunities to make links that can support a child. Whether it’s records of behaviour, injuries or safeguarding concerns, the more data we can interrogate and interpret, the greater the chance that we can spot patterns or links between seemingly unrelated concerns.

As with paper registers, the amount of child protection and behaviour information that’s made on paper is astounding. If can combine this with records of injuries (which almost every school still does using paper), school leaders can analyse the data to see when injuries tend to occur and where.

Understanding this could then lead to a more effective deployment of staff and increased awareness among pupils regarding certain times, locations and systems.

For example, one of my schools identified that a significant number of injuries were taking place before school, when the children were waiting for the bell and largely unsupervised by teaching staff. We subsequently moved to a soft start, which eradicated this area of concern almost immediately.

Squeezing every last drop

Linking a pupil’s poor behaviour on Monday with a stomach ache that affected them on Friday could possibly lead to questions being raised about their home life over the weekend.

Equally, it might not – but without the data in front of us, presented in way that’s easy to interpret, we can’t even consider the question.

Companies such as Medical Tracker and MyConcern are leading the way here, with MyConcern currently being used by services across Birmingham to ensure a common approach in how they record safeguarding information.

Admittedly, (we’re not Tesco, Sainsbury, Ford or Google – but if we were, we’d be squeezing every last drop out of all the data available to us), in order to create an environment that’s better suited to the needs of our end users. Viewed in this way, we’re probably closer to those socially dynamic businesses than we might initially think.

If the notion that ‘every child matters’ still applies within our schools, then we need to understand those children from all angles. We know the technology can easily cope with the volume of information we want to send its way – so perhaps it’s time to take a deep breath and properly embrace what digital data can do for us.

System diagnostics

  • Data analysis can save time and ultimately money. The sooner you can spot trends, the quicker and less painful it will be to intervene and address the issues involved
  • Behaviour data can be accessed immediately and compared against school averages, making it easier to distinguish between normal behaviours and genuine concerns. This can help at meetings with parents too, since it’s hard to argue against facts
  • Patterns can be identified that might have previously been missed. You may see child protection concerns peaking after half term breaks, for example, when anecdotal evidence might have suggested that these occurred before half term
  • A school might be aware of a principle child protection concern, such as domestic violence, but be less conscious of second and third layer concerns. With appropriately formatted data, more time can be spent analysing the concerns in question

Anthony David is an executive headteacher of two North London schools.