Using data to drive school efficiencies

In this article, Richard Harley shares how data can drive school efficiencies.

Every school will have some form of management information system. In some schools, the collection and use of data creates unnecessary and burdensome workload for teachers and leaders alike. If the use of data in your school isn’t yet driving efficiencies then this article may provide you with some of the answers.

With technology at our fingertips and now intrinsically linked to almost all of our daily tasks, it’s no surprise that reports have indicated that 90% of the world’s data was created in just the last two years. In fact, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are now created every day – a number which one blog helpfully equated to the number of pennies you could lay out flat, and cover the earth with five times over. Increasingly, understanding how to harness the power of data is becoming hugely important to lots of industries and organisations, from creating new business opportunities to streamlining processes and creating efficiencies.

In this article, we examine the types of data sets the education sector and schools specifically are generating, and, importantly, how spotting patterns in these ‘everyday’ data sets can have a big impact on school management and generate huge time savings.

To put it another way, you need to understand how things are working in order to find better ways of doing it in the future – and using data can help you do that. To provide a comparison, most people are familiar with the way smart meters work, for tracking and managing energy consumption in their homes. You can see at a glance when your consumption is too high, and what activities cause your usage to increase. Adjusting the way you consume energy therefore, allows you keep your bills in check.

In a similar vein, data insights can be generated as a result of the natural running of the school, and tracking them has the potential to deliver important benefits - such as better pupil outcomes, a reduction in staff workload, contented parents, budget savings, early intervention on safeguarding issues, and lots more. So, how can you do it?

Establish a single source of truth

To start at the beginning, you should make sure you have one central store of data – your management information system (MIS). It makes sense as all schools are obliged to have one, and by and large, all school data is being captured via the MIS anyway.

But your data shouldn’t just sit there. An efficient MIS should have the agility to stretch beyond the day-to-day tracking to help schools really understand their data and use it to solve time-consuming challenges.

To keep the system beneficial, it should be your ‘single source of truth’. Avoid duplicating data sources by integrating other systems (which may require the same data sets to be replicated multiple times, such as class lists) into the MIS (most providers allow you to do this via API connections). Stress the importance of integration with any new service the school buys in and ensure the supplier complies; this will allow you to keep your data accurate, saves a lot of time and helps those staff using connected systems to stay up to date, as the data feeds through from one main source.

Keeping one central store of data also helps to maintain GDPR compliance, as it eradicates the need to move data around manually on spreadsheets.

Go paperless

It sounds simple, but digitising your paperwork will dramatically reduce your administrative workload - and there are lots of tasks you can apply this to, no matter how long a paper process has been in place.

For example, online registers can be completed in the classroom with a click of a button. Not only is this quicker, but the data is then available immediately in the office for first day calling procedures and other administration support. Digitising the process reduces the need to gather, process and manually input the register information, saving time every day.

With your MIS tracking these data inputs, the office can also immediately see which classrooms have not completed the register – often an issue in primary schools, or for afternoon registers, so the school has an immediate and up-to-date fire list which is ready to access in case of emergency.

Similarly, online mark books can be used to record grades, which once updated, will automatically analyse pupil progress, achievements and curriculum coverage, allowing staff to quickly spot any areas of development.

Child support information can also be stored in a secure area of the MIS rather than on paper (which is potentially less secure, certainly more liable to loss), allowing teachers to record concerns online, anticipate issues before they arise and automatically notify relevant staff members.

With these interconnecting data sets all coming together, the school is able to create a digital version of each pupil, which sits within a system that can monitor patterns and alert school staff if any aspect of pupil health, safety or attainment changes.

Improve teaching effectiveness

Tracking student performance is also an important way to increase the effectiveness of staff. By collecting interventions data, such as entry and exit assessments in your MIS, you can monitor the value for money of each intervention, and assess the patterns of effective interventions. Once the data has been collected, you can use it to compare class progress and attainment across years or across all schools in a multi-academy trust, allowing you to easily spot where you need to be focusing efforts.

You might spot an opportunity for staff CPD for example, or be able to track examples of outstanding performance that otherwise wasn’t benchmarked. Once established, you can make changes to teaching methods, processes or procedures and track the differences in attainment, allowing you to make an informed decision before rolling new ideas out to other classes, or schools.

Automate and personalise

Reporting is a big job and one that takes up a significant amount of school staff time. However, once all your data sets are created, about assessments, behaviour, attendance, progress, compliance, pupil premium, staff performance, EAL, after-school clubs, SEND, equipment (and everything in-between) the information can pulled out of the system and created into easy-to-understand reports.

This seems like a lot, but just as you would with an online register, or initial profile creation of the pupil, you can build these data sets with the click of a button. Click to include the pupil as male or female, or identify as walking to school alone. Then data sets can be mixed and different formats explored to show correlations against whichever criteria you need to demonstrate, such as the attendance rates of boys in year 3 over the summer term.

Similarly, with the rich profile of each student created online, you can use any set of this data to create personalised communications to send to parents – increasing engagement from meaningful interactions about the child.

For example, you can use your MIS to pull through data on attendance or behaviour to create communications that appear tailored to each parent, something simply too time-consuming and not possible to do manually. Automating communications with parents also allows you to track when messages haven’t been received, so if needed, you can see at a glance which parents are least likely to engage with you.

In each of the examples above, the key factor for increasing efficiencies is in spotting the trends your data sets present, and then using these to draw conclusions to allow you to intervene early.

For example, noting a repeat pattern of non-attendance by a pupil from your online register, either consecutively, or on the same day every week might prompt you to spot a bigger issue with the child or their home life. When the school feels it’s appropriate to address the issue with the parents, you can show the data to help demonstrate the scale of the problem and help the conversation along.

Armed with this formalised bank of data and an ability to clearly see where support is needed and improvements can be made, schools can start to make informed decisions about how to make positive changes.

You can start to interrogate the trends to understand why processes are occurring – daily, weekly, monthly? Is the occurrence serving a particular purpose, or can it be changed? Can it be automated or solved via another solution? Is the right person doing the job? Would it be more efficient for someone else to handle it? How much time, or money would you save if you stopped this activity now?

Make informed decisions

With the school more informed about which processes or programmes are becoming a black hole for time, or where time is being spent but could be more effectively placed on other areas, it can have a big impact on overall efficiencies. Importantly, with the demands on a school ever increasing and responsibilities of school staff seemingly endless, schools need to find ways to cut through the workload to focus on what’s really important.

Tracking your data shouldn’t become all-encompassing – the key is finding ways to make smarter data decisions and to open discussions with your staff and stakeholders about what you should be tracking that could really make a difference. Finding new ways to use and interpret data has real potential to solve some of the unique challenges schools currently face, freeing up staff capacity and allowing staff to focus on delivering education.

This article is written by Rich Harley, CEO of

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This article is from the free online course:

Leadership of Education Technology in Schools

Chartered College of Teaching