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In education being data literate is not optional

Data analytics in education is not just about efficiencies, it has the power to improve outcomes and ensure every child achieves their potential

In my role, I have the distinct privilege of meeting with and working closely with many of our education clients to see first-hand how they use our solutions to improve the life chances of the children and young adults that pass through their doors. They do this by focussing on individuals and ‘knowing’ – not ‘guessing’ – what is happening with their learners, by using data to drive early interventions with students who might be at risk of going ‘off the rails’.  It can be inspiring to listen to them talk.

No one working in education today decided to do so just to look at spreadsheets of student performance data. However, being able to understand the data, spot the patterns, trends and, sometimes, hidden stories within it is a key skill for just about everyone working in education today.  When I was a fresh-faced deputy headteacher in the late 1990s, few schools understood how to analyse data.  All this has changed, and school, college and university leadership teams are now awash with data. And, while many use our solutions to analyse and ‘slice and dice’ the data to turn it into actionable information, to explain what is happening at establishment, year, class/subject or individual student level, I still come across locations where data is often siloed, lacking standardisation and incomplete. 

The situation becomes even more complex when multiple locations, campuses and groups of schools or colleges are involved, and an aggregated view is required.  Add in a requirement to compare how your school, college or university is doing compared to others and it’s easy to see why education data managers (a very important breed of person in educational establishments these days) never have a quiet moment.  The days of the late 1990s are gone – schools, colleges and universities have to be data literate to survive and thrive in today’s world.

Using data and technology to drive educational improvement

What makes us different to many ‘EdTech’ companies is that we create management information software and services that support the learning journey from nursery right through to higher education.  It is quite possible that a learner’s record will reside in a solution provided by Capita from their first visit to nursery until the time they graduate from college or university.

This gives us a unique ‘all through’ perspective on the approach taken to management of data by those working in education today and the common components of a successful approach to data management within a school, college or university.  And, over the years, I’ve noticed four things that educational organisations that are successful with data do well:

  • Get strategic

Agree what data your institution will collect, with what frequency, and how it will be used.  In a recent guest blog on our AGILIT-e site, higher education data expert, Andy Youell, explains what to consider when building a data strategy, and although aimed at HE settings, this approach would work in schools and colleges just as well.

  • Use the technology you have (or get what you need)

Use the full capability of your student management information solution, which should have in built capability to show you data as interactive dashboards, ‘drillable’ reports, a library of key data analyses and alerting systems that tell you when things change.  These are areas of functionality we focus on with our SIMS (schools), UNIT-e (colleges) and AGILIT-e (university) software solutions.  If you put the data into systems like ours – you want them to tell you something important in a way that you do not have to spend too long looking!

  • Provide easy access where it matters most

Put the data in the hands of those that can do most with it, and do not just keep it hidden behind the doors of the establishment’s management offices.  Our data analysis tool, SIMS Discover for schools, ensures teachers can easily access and ask questions about their students, while the SIMS Parent App puts data in the hands of parents, right where they want to see it – on their phone – so they are kept fully in the picture in relation to their child’s progress.  Similarly, in FE colleges, solutions like Student Advantage and Staff Advantage put the data where it can have the greatest impact – in the palms of the staff and learners themselves.

  • Don’t act in isolation

Make sure you understand your institution’s data in context and not in isolation (although that’s important too).  Consider how you compare to those establishments like you and against national benchmarks.  If that data shows you are different, either positively or negatively, ask why this could be?

The road ahead for education data analytics

Data and analytics are areas with many buzzwords: big data, data lakes, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and so on.  Advances in data analysis techniques and technologies such as software bots and voice assistants mean we are on the cusp of a revolution everywhere, not just in education.

Think about the next time you buy something online.  You’ll see ‘people who bought that also bought this’, or ‘48% who looked at this went on to buy that’, or ‘recommended for you’.

Now, apply that experience to education data in schools, colleges or universities and what might happen?

Systems will soon be telling us things like: ‘Did you realise that, based on her current pattern of attendance and results, it looks like Philippa will drop out of her university course next term’ or ‘did you know that Lauren has been absent from school the last four Mondays in a row and this absence pattern is shared by Andrew, Natalie and Chetan’.”

Similarly, how far off are we from being able to say: ‘Hey, (Alexa / Siri / Google) – what is the likely outcome for our GCSE resits and A level results this year in maths, and what actions should I take now to improve them?’.

At Capita, we think that future is just around the corner and we are moving quickly in that direction.

Photo of Graham Cooper

Graham Cooper

Head of education, Capita Education Software Solutions

Prior to joining Capita SIMS, Graham spent 13 years in teaching, as a science teacher, head of ICT and latterly as deputy head of a large secondary school in Manchester. This is where he first started using Capita SIMS and became passionate about the impact of management information systems on student achievement. In his current role, Graham is responsible for understanding changes in the education landscape and how these will impact the business and product strategy to best support our school, college and university customers.

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