A system for ‘taming’ data is a huge first step in raising attainment in schools

Schools generate a lot of data. Tests, homework, behaviour scores to name but a few. Each child, whilst in the education setting, is a constant source of data. This data, very much like that generated during a hospital check-up, can be used to diagnose a child’s current situation and predict future attainment.

Schools are facing increasing problems of managing big data. Currently in Scotland, this data is managed in a variety of ways. Excel spreadsheets feature heavily, as do Access databases. The Scottish school management information system, SEEMiS, currently stores limited data for a given school year. Whilst some schools manage Access databases effectively, problems often arise when the person who has developed the system moves on, taking their knowledge with them. Excel spreadsheets become very difficult to manage in schools with more than very small intakes.

Pupil data becomes an issue when schools try to effectively target interventions to raise attainment. Money has recently been made available for this to improve significantly, but the question of handling an overwhelming amount of data and how to improve targeted interventions remains to be answered.

Angus Local Authority has undertaken to change their approach towards pupil attainment data, to answer many of these pressing issues. The local authority, working closely with schools, has recently decided to introduce a new system, initially to all secondary schools with roll out to primary schools on the cards for the near future. This system is provided by Pupil Tracking Ltd, experts in the field of handling pupil data and using it effectively, and it marks the start of a more unified approach to collecting, analysing and getting value from the data.

It will allow a fully integrated approach covering the whole time a child is in school, with automated flagging of under achievement. The overall aim is to make the data much more available to teaching staff, with strong features reflecting each school’s approach to raising attainment. Specific, bespoke cohorts of pupils will be identified real time, for example pupils receiving free school meals underachieving in more than one subject, rather than relying on one member of staff updating spreadsheets.

The system has been developed over 15 years in England, where schools have had access to this type of system for much longer. It’s taken a while but it is now standard across English schools to use dedicated and specialist IT systems to help raise attainment.

Pupil Tracking for Scotland was launched at the Scottish Learning Festival in 2016 following a consultation period of over a year, which featured Angus schools in the design and application of the system to the Scottish system. Jeremy Morris, from Monifieth High School and Anne Collins, from Webster’s High School, led the input from Angus. Morris is clear about what he sees as the benefits of the system. “It’s basically everything we’ve needed for years. Handling data is about to become much more efficient. We’re excited about what it will mean for the pupils.”

In addition, Pupil Tracking allows parents to have meaningful involvement in assessing their children’s ongoing achievements. Parental involvement has, for many years, been short of empirical support. It has been difficult, historically, to show that parental involvement raises attainment. But in recent years, research has shown that parental engagement does work, if the data is presented in the right way.

Parental engagement does not work when parents are given test results, or levels achieved for subjects, the standard fodder for school reports. Parental engagement does, however, become powerful when data covering overall attainment is used. Schools in Angus will be able to decide which data to share with parents via Pupil Tracking’s online portal and aims to make the data straightforward for parents to evaluate. Schools can choose to share data that gives an oversight of where each child is currently and where they should be if progress continues well. A traffic light system will quickly communicate if a pupil is on track for their predicted attainment.

It’s important to note that raising attainment, and the use of data to do so, is not about churning pupils out of a regimented system focused on results. It is much more about identifying pupils, who for whatever reason are struggling to maintain their potential, quickly and effectively, and employing interventions to help the child get back on track as soon as possible. The success of such a system depends as much on the quality of intervention employed by the school as it does the identification of pupils who are underachieving. ‘Taming’ the data to help schools work more efficiently and effectively is a huge first step though.