Monday, 10 February 2014

The structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard

I've never been a teacher and I'm not a statistician. So there are loads of people who you should ask about school data before coming to me. People like Daisy Christodoulou, ARK Schools' R&D Manager, for example. My job involves improving the way we use data and systems, but I defer to others on the educational philosophy which underpins our approach.

Even from a technical perspective, I am not anywhere close to being an expert. Instead, I would describe myself as at the "repeat-what-clever-people-tell-you" stage. So here's what clever people have been telling me over the past months:
  1. People are confused about what school systems do (part 1). The core administrative system in UK schools is usually referred to as the Management Information System (MIS), but I don't think this is a great description. To me a MIS is a system that lets you analyse data for management purposes. School "MIS", on the other hand, are always used for data collection, and only sometimes for data analysis. So it would be more accurate to call it an Information System.  
  2. The "MIS" market is not structured to foster innovation. 83% of schools in England use Capita's desktop-based SIMS product (this helpful Edugeek post has the full breakdown). Cloud-based systems such as the promising, primary-focused Scholarpack are barely 1% of the market. Capita are not exactly hurrying towards the cloud. Maybe this is because they are happy with the way the market is working for them. Maybe I'd feel the same if 17,912 schools were paying me to sell them a legacy product.
  3. Gathering data is hard... Plenty of schools do have an assessment model and so generate data, but it can be a huge endeavour to get the data of a quality that stands up to proper analysis. For example, are you holding common tests across age groups? Are you moderating teachers' marking? Do you know how to tie your progress measure to curriculum?  
  4. ... and analysing it can be even harder. Not all "MIS" have good analytics, and some are really bad at it. So many schools choose to handle analytics outside their "MIS" by using products like Target Tracker or Go4Schools. That's fine, but it can feel like double-paying - particularly when the core product is called a Management Information System. 
  5. People are confused about what school systems do (part 2). Lots of schools have something they call a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Others call it a Learning Management System (LMS). A few call it a Learning Platform (my preferred term). Whichever way you badge it, I'm not convinced that many schools are using them for learning. A more accurate description would be "fancy shared drive", or "intranet". In other words, I've mostly seen them used for passing around documents (eg handing in homework), and for school administration (eg booking a room). These are useful functions, but they're not the same as online learning and assessment.
  6. No-one in the UK is blending data well. Even schools that do analytics well are unlikely to have managed to blend data from multiple source systems. The main problem is that analytics is usually tied to a single source system. For example, you might use SIMS Discover to analyse your SIMS data. That will do a job for you, but what if you want to look at SIMS data alongside data from your learning platform, or your HR system, or your finance system? In a big data world, it's usually preferable to handle analytics outside of your source systems, for example by blending data in a data warehouse and then attaching that to your analytics tool. That's what we're working on at ARK Schools right now, taking inspiration from the hugely impressive Schoolzilla in California.
This brings me to my central point: these problems persist because the structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard.

Things like point 6 above are mindbendingly complicated, and you need specialist resources and lots of time to get a solution in place. In most multi-billion-pound sectors, you'd expect to find a few big fish with huge technology budgets who can commission clever solutions. Smaller fish would then benefit as the solutions trickle down to them over time.

But schools can't do that, because there are no big fish. There were 24,327 schools in the January 2013 census, and the largest mainstream school was Nottingham Academy, with 2,543 pupils. I'm guessing that gives them a budget of £12-13m. After teachers have been paid, that sort of scale doesn't leave much room for big data innovation.

Local authorities arguably have the have the scale to help, and many do employ smart data people, but the number of schools under local authority control is declining as the academies sector grows. This inevitably leads to shrinking budgets, and shrinking budgets are not the best place to look for whizzy innovation.

Academy groups should help to fill the gap, but I wouldn't overstate the extent to which this is happening yet. The sector is very young, and growing rapidly, and as a result many groups are struggling to cope with even the most basic systems challenges.

ARK Schools have done a lot with data - I'm sure I'll write about the awesome reporting tools built by Jose Diaz in future posts - and I'm excited about where we're going. But I'm still getting my head round the fact that we can't really improve by copying best practice, because best practice doesn't exist yet.

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