Duncan Baldwin is Deputy Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders and has been developing the ideas behind the Open Data Project for Schools. The project will help school leaders to understand and deliver school improvement through better insight into their data. We spoke to Duncan to find out more about this exciting multi-school endeavour.
What is the future of data in education?
“The education sector is lagging behind other sectors when it comes to making the best use of technology and data. Other sectors use their data to gain insight in ways we haven’t yet broached in schools and colleges. We have a great opportunity to take the wealth of data that schools are already collecting, and use it to identify issues, spot patterns and predict trends without creating extra work. We want school leaders to be able to get feedback from their data about what is currently happening in their schools. Waiting until the end of the school year to see what they could have improved is too late. The technology and systems exist to do this and it’s time for education to rethink how it does data.”
Why is ASCL delivering the Open Data Project?
“We know that government-led, top-down initiatives have limited value in improving education systems. For education in our country to be truly great we need schools to work to drive improvement, with government stepping back. For example, we can use live attendance data to get a picture of the trends and patterns in individual schools as they emerge, and compare them to similar pupils elsewhere. Looking at average attendance as it appears in performance tables may have a place in the government’s view of accountability but it does not shed any light on the particular attendance traits in an individual school or how to tackle them. The process of averaging thousands of marks into a single figure disguises the detail needed to really understand the problem. With greater insight we can use that information to target particular pupils in school more of the time. School attendance is a difficult and persistent area to improve and leaders need all the help they can to tackle it.
“The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has been working closely with education data specialists askEddi and a pilot group of schools from different local authorities in North West England to develop a new approach to the use of data. We’ve called it the Open Data Project for Schools (ODPS) and the more schools that get involved, the more insights we can gather and the more we can learn from each other.
“Working with our pilot groups in the ODPS, we quickly identified that a key area to start the project was attendance. Schools already record attendance, but few are using it to its full potential. Attendance officers and school leaders use aggregated data and work with individual pupils, but newer data techniques such as advanced analytics and machine learning can provide insight which is inaccessible otherwise. A particular issue raised by school leaders is persistent absence but processing information on trends and patterns can take hours or even days and deflect key staff from making the early interventions they need.
“AskEddi are the key technical partner to the ODPS and have developed the data platform working alongside school leaders and staff. The askEddi system sits on top of a school’s existing management system and extracts the data to a highly visual data dashboard. This can be customised to show reports and statistics, tailored to each school’s specific needs or areas of focus. The team at askEddi have been incredibly responsive and supportive in delivering the suggestions from schools; it’s a great example of a school-led initiative and they share our vision about how schools can use data to make a big difference.”
What are the current problems with data in schools?
“All organisations need to use data to understand how well they are performing, and schools are no exception to that. The problem with data in the education setting is that it’s largely used to drive high stakes accountability. This means that schools have been understandably focussed on performance tables and inspections and there are missed opportunities to look at how the same data can be used as a key component of school improvement.
“Another problem with high-stakes accountability is the historical nature of the published figures. By the time performance tables are produced, the data is out of date and it’s too late to use it to make any kind of intervention – those pupils have left the school.
“The Open Data Project aims to address these issues by looking at current pupils, while you can do something to make a difference. We want to bring data which is live and accessible directly to schools without extra effort.”
Why did you start by looking at attendance data?
“We know that attendance is a really important issue for many schools. The problem with attendance is there is so much data; a large secondary school could have half a million attendances recorded over the year. However, an advantage of starting with attendance is all that schools record it in the same way – they all use the same codes and symbols. This made it easier to see what we could learn by comparing across several schools. Starting with attendance has proven a good proof of concept for this way of working. There is no limit to the types of data schools could use – we’ve had demand to produce comparisons for pupils’ attainment, standardised test reports, subject level performance, moving data between schools during transition and much more. Once schools are connected to the Open Data Project they can safely compare any data they like.
“We can compare data like-for-like, within and between schools. We can make direct comparisons between form groups, years, MATS and whole regions, using strongly visual displays which are easy to use.
“The ODPS will greatly benefit school leaders as it gives both in-depth data analysis as well as the headlines, presenting data in an easy to use way. They can use it to interrogate exactly what’s going on without particularly extensive training – they can get stuck in using data that’s live and up to date.
“The askEddi platform will be used primarily by attendance officers and data managers who work with the information daily and it greatly reduces the time needed to create reports. The platform will also appeal to those leaders and support staff who need to engage with particular types of data but do not want to waste time constructing reports. All this can be automated so that staff can focus on taking action.
What are the aims of the Open Data Project?
“As more schools come on board and more data is added and analysed, the platform gets smarter and the potential is greater. We anticipate the project leading to further insights into attendance trends, identifying areas that schools can improve on. The machine learning and AI aspects of the platform are particularly exciting as we will see the system generating notifications and alerts as it spots patterns emerging, further reducing the need for manual data analysis.
“Schools will save an enormous amount of time; this system does all the heavy lifting in compiling reports and organising the data so schools will be able to spend much more time focussing on intervention and working with youngsters with attendance issues. They will gain insights in ways they haven’t done before. They will be able to look at and compare attendance over time, across schools and regions, which is difficult or impossible to do within the confines of the existing management system. And this is a school-led system; how it develops, what types of data we can use and the continued ethical leadership remain in the hands of heads and school leaders working with ASCL.
“The big advantage of this system is that it’s possible to look at your own school in new ways and gain new insights. The Open Data Project is about collaboration – schools can share their data and compare with other schools or areas safely and securely. It then becomes possible not just to understand your own school’s attendance but also to compare it to other schools in your own town, your own local authority or across the nation. To compare similar types of pupil, demographic, special educational needs, backgrounds… the list goes on.
What do I need to do to get involved?
“It’s very easy to get started. Once data sharing arrangements are in place it takes one day to upload the data and to do the first data extraction which means that one day after signing the agreement you can be using the system.
“The platform itself is cloud-based and designed to be simple to use, so training is minimal and set up is quick. We are confident that all your users can learn the system quickly and will benefit enormously from the time saved versus your existing systems.
“We’ve been piloting the open data project with askEddi for the past year, learning from the experience of a wide range of schools. Now we are ready for more schools to join in and add their data and experience.
“Over time we’d like to look at formative assessment, we’d like to look at things like the destinations students have when they leave school rather than waiting for the government to tell them three years later where their pupils have ended up. There are many ways we can use this system and these will all evolve over time.
“What’s crucial though is that school leaders themselves help to drive the direction of the project and they will need to remain in charge and oversee where the project goes. It’s a very exciting journey and this is just the beginning.”
What about data protection and security?
“From a data security point of view, we have carried out due diligence and are confident that pupil data will be secure. Each school can view their own data but as we draw local and national comparisons the data will be anonymised, so no individual pupils’ data is shared. The data will be more secure than it is typically in a school as there’s no need to keep separate paper records or reports and everything is stored in one place.”
How can my school get involved?
“Schools working together in this way can completely transform the school accountability landscape. If we allow schools to really concentrate on collaborating and learning from each other, there’s no limit to what we can compare and measure. What we really want is hundreds and thousands of schools to collaborate in this way because the technology, the machine learning needs vast quantities of data to really learn from so the more schools that join in the better.”
If you want your school to lead the way with better data and to collaborate with your peers on changing the landscape of attendance data in schools, enrol on the Open Data Project today.