ARTICLE: Using Data to Create Effective Strategies in Schools by NAPCE Award Winner Luke Ramsden
Using Data to Create Effective Strategies in Schools by Luke Ramsden
All schools have understood the benefits of using data to track the academic progress of their students (and the performance of their different departments) for many years now.
Detailed evaluation of performance is now a standard part of every school’s strategy for ensuring the best possible results.
In doing this schools are paralleling companies and many other organisations in realising the importance of using data to inform their strategies.
There are two potential problems, though, that need to be understood to ensure that data can be used really effectively in the planning of a whole-school strategy.
The first of these is that, understandably enough, many school leaders and governors have not had much training in data analysis and so do not always find themselves that comfortable in evaluating the growing quantities of data being thrown at them.
For instance, school leaders can sometimes make decisions on data without fully understanding the concept of Statistical Significance.
To give a common example, many schools will use the number of students getting an Oxbridge offer as a benchmark of academic success.
However, with a few exceptions, the numbers applying are so small each year that they do not make a statistically significant sample.
In comparison those getting offers to Russell Group universities which is probably a much larger sample is a far better measure as it does not depend much on the fortunes of each individual student.
The second problem is that, while senior teams have a clear focus on academic data to create a forward-thinking and clearly planned strategy, data in other areas of school life often remains relatively neglected.
This is despite the fact that the introduction of software to record and categorise behavioural and pastoral issues are increasingly used, giving schools at least as much data to analyse here as in the academic sphere.
Using data on attendance
Attendance is a good example of an area of school life where seemingly simple data records of attendance need to be evaluated and contextualised with care.
All schools already closely monitor student attendance through their registers.
Indeed, a document published in January by the Department for Education, New measures to increase school attendance means that ‘Schools are … being asked from today to sign up to a new daily attendance data collection trial. Data will be gathered directly from school registers, reducing administrative work and potentially helping schools, academy trusts, local authorities and central Government spot and address system-wide issues more quickly.’
Yet, while collecting raw attendance data is clearly important to monitor and challenge low attendance, a number of recent news stories have highlighted the issue of schools punishing poor attendance even when there might be a very good pastoral or medical explanation for absence.
It seems common sense that, in order to understand attendance data fully, schools should incorporate contextual information to understand why attendance might be low.
For instance, students with low attendance due to anxiety or other mental health concerns could be given a separate category of attendance to contextualise and explain this low attendance.
The same could be done for students with documented physical health concerns that have also led to low attendance.
In that way schools can ensure they are challenging poor attendance while also being mindful of students’ pastoral concerns.
Similarly, if attendance data is contextualised like this schools can ensure that they can plan a really effective strategy to improve attendance levels.
So, for instance, if a large number of absentee students have documented mental health concerns then school investment in mental health support such as school counselling will be more effective than fines on parents in improving attendance.
In the same way as schools already have a lot of raw data on attendance, schools will also generally have a lot of data on behaviour through the noting of detentions, suspensions and exclusions.
Again, though, the important thing is to be able to process and evaluate this data so that it becomes useful information for school leaders and governors.
A good example of this is in interpreting an increase in the number of detentions in a school.
A simplistic reading of the data that the number of detentions rose in a term or a year could just be to assume that it means that behaviour has grown worse in the school as more students must be misbehaving.
Yet it could also be that the behaviour policy has changed in an attempt to improve behaviour and so it is easier to get a detention, and also perhaps that teachers have been asked to be more vigilant for poor behaviour and so it is being more widely reported.
The dilemma this gives schools can be seen in the wake of last year’s Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges.
All teachers will be much more vigilant in looking out for these cases, and also in recording them as this is now a requirement for inspection.
This will lead to an increase in peer on peer abuse cases recorded by many schools, but whilst superficial reading of this data by school governors or inspectors might seem to indicate a school with growing problems in this area in fact it shows that the school is doing absolutely the right thing with an increasing number of cases recorded.
In terms of developing wider school strategies the real opportunity that comes from behavioural data comes from using the broader pattern of behaviour events to evaluate what school policies have had a positive impact and what strategies are likely to work in the future.
So, for instance, if bullying cases are recorded it might be that over the years a clear pattern can be seen that bullying cases peak at a particular time of year.
This can allow the school to act pre-emptively the next year by ensuring that there are anti-bullying assemblies at that time of year, that there are extra teachers on duty to monitor behaviour and so on.
The more data that is being collected the more targeted this can be, so for instance if you collect data on where incidents happen, you can look to target particular ‘hot spots’ for poor behaviour where teachers are on duty or even work to develop the site, perhaps opening up or just redecorating a forgotten corner of the campus where students felt unobserved.
Schools have not historically made a habit of collecting purely pastoral concerns in the form of data that can be processed and evaluated.
However, the ubiquity of MyConcern, CPOMS and other online pastoral systems mean that schools now have a tremendous new opportunity here as well to be just as well-informed here as in all other areas of school life.
As with academic and behaviour tracking the most significant element of this is that it allows senior leaders to develop a school strategy of pastoral care that can pre-empt issues in the future rather than just reacting to events as they occur.
So if a school saw a particular spike in anxiety cases in their year 9 students then the PSHE programme for the next year could be tailored to have a greater number of lessons looking at mental health first aid, and tutors for the next academic year could have specific training to help them support that year group.
Again, like behaviour management, the more detailed the data is the better use the school can make of it, so ensuring that pastoral data is clearly categorised is crucial.
So if it was clear that anxiety concerns in year 9 were largely about academic achievement or largely post-covid anxiety about attendance this would allow even more specific support to be put in place for the students to support those issues.
Over the years broader long-term trends can also be seen, and quantified, far more clearly when keeping pastoral records online and the broader strategic needs of the school identified.
So in a school where it is felt that there might be a need for great counselling provision the senior team can quickly and easily identify the numbers of cases each year which would have benefitted from this and see exactly how much that need has grown over the preceding years.
It is clear then that there are huge opportunities for schools to take advantage of the vast amounts of data being collected by the electronic systems that they use, but that all of this data needs to be evaluated and used intelligently so that it moves from being raw data to useful information.
Senior Deputy Head
St Benedict’s School, London