The rise and rise of big data

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The intelligent use of data is increasingly vital, not least when working in collaboration. As such, SSAT and SecEd have joined together to offer schools a free taster of the new Educational Outcomes database. Chris Smith explains.

Big Data has become big news. Companies, governments, organisations and individuals around the world are delving into the depths of the huge pools of data that are now accessible to them. 

George Osborne’s budget announcement last week earmarked £42 million to establish the “Alan Turing Institute” to further our understanding and application of it. Even Lady Gaga uses it to decide her set lists as she travels from country to country. 

When used well, data can have a hugely positive impact and this is not something that has passed the world of education by. 

Indeed, the publication of SSAT’s annual Educational Outcomes database is indicative of the increasing demand for and use of data in schools across the country and provides the potential for data once more to drive forward school improvement.

Data to aid collaboration

Data and its application is now common place and common parlance in school corridors throughout the country. Teachers have seating plans spattered with it, each assessment point comes with a round of data entry, many schools employ a data manager and buy in data management systems. 

The analysis and application of such data can be integral to a school’s success, allowing appropriate and targeted intervention, the identification of areas of strength and weakness, the monitoring of particular student groups and much more. 

Not only can data enable schools to look at themselves through a new lens, but it can enable them to broaden their view outside of their walls and reap the reward of working with others.

I have written in SecEd before about the many and varied benefits of collaboration between schools and how it can lead to school improvement. However, it is no silver bullet and if done without real rigour and conviction collaboration is likely to have limited impact. 

One of the shining examples of successful collaboration in education, that has had real impact, is of course the London Challenge. It managed to find a formula that allowed schools to collaborate within a framework that ensured it provided results. This was no accident. Underpinning this collaboration was the skilled use of hard data. Indeed, the glowing 2010 Ofsted report that looks at how the London Challenge managed such success mentions “data” a total of 21 times.

Data was used throughout the process schools went through in the London Challenge and not just to identify troubled schools or to monitor progress. While blindly copying processes because they were successful elsewhere is not advisable, the guidelines below (based on the experiences of the London Challenge and the words of Professor Sir Tim Brighouse who spoke recently on collaboration at an SSAT reform dinner) can provide some ideas for schools wishing to collaborate rigorously, with data to the fore, to drive improvement.

Choosing the right partner

When collaborating it is important to find the right person to work with, both in a personal and professional sense. There would be little point working with a school in an entirely different context with no experience of the challenges you face when there are schools that have perhaps already met those challenges and would be far more rewarding to work with and learn from. As such, the initial choice of collaborative partner is crucial.

Let us turn, briefly, to the world of online dating – where choice of partner is the aim of the game. Statistics vary, but we are told that between 15 and 20 per cent of new marriages have resulted from online meetings and dating websites. A quite remarkable statistic considering the concept of online dating didn’t exist just two decades ago. Dating websites base much of their success on matching people who are likely to work well together and they use data, primarily inputted by users themselves, to do this.

School collaboration – while not entirely comparable to the online dating arena – has similarities. Schools need to know what they are looking for in a collaborative partner and then to go out and find them. The London Challenge, a little like a dating website, allowed this matching to occur by digging into data about school performance and pulling out matches. 

The Ofsted report highlighted this, pointing to “the ‘family of schools’ booklet (that) grouped together similar schools in similar contexts”. This booklet provided data on schools and meant that “headteachers could ... compare how some of the schools were achieving much better than their own” and could consequently be matched to these schools to learn from them.

This might be around a specific area such as attendance or an area as broad as attainment. What was crucial though was that schools weren’t blindly working together because they thought it would be good, they were matched according to the data where there was potential for the partnership to provide great benefit.

Ensuring there is an impact

Data, then, is crucial for ensuring that collaboration is set up in the right way and with the right people, but this is not where its utility ends. For collaboration to provide maximum impact there need to be clearly defined goals and accountability. Data can help to provide just that.

It enables the difficult conversations that have to happen to take place, but also to provide evidence when things have gone well. This should not just be carried out at the end of a collaborative effort, but continually monitored and reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Educational Outcomes

SSAT have partnered with SecEd to give all readers a taster of Educational Outcomes (see further information). The new edition of this annual database, sent to SSAT members earlier this term, crunches official Department for Education performance and absence data with the latest Ofsted ratings to provide the key 2012/13 contextual and performance data on every state-funded school in the country. 

It enables you to plot your school’s performance against all other schools and compare against a number of metrics. It therefore supports the kind of collaboration that London Challenge enabled, by letting you identify schools in similar circumstances to your own – helping you to make the right choice of collaborative partner. Our members tell us it is an invaluable asset for telling their school’s story and preparing for an Ofsted inspection. 

The full database gives you all the data that sits behind these PDFs, so you can filter on a range of contextual, attainment, progress, and closing the gap measures, plus absence, Ofsted ratings and location. This year, the database also contains the “Best 8” average grade to help you prepare for the new Attainment/Progress 8 measures. Using this tool, you can find schools that share your features and find those that have performed better in similar circumstances and could help you improve. 

Conclusion

Data and collaboration are two buzzwords in education, and beyond, at the moment. Collaboration could be perceived as being fluffy but data allows collaboration to be hard-edged and effective. The Educational Outcomes database can aid your school in identifying partners it would be most expedient to collaborate with and helps you to monitor the progress of that collaboration. 

What is more, it can be an incredibly useful tool just to measure and evaluate the progress of your school within a wider context without having to crunch big data yourself. Data is here to stay and it brings with it great potential for schools system-wide to learn more about themselves and to learn more from each other.

  • Chris Smith is research co-ordinator with SSAT.

Educational Outcomes
SecEd readers can sign up at www.ssatuk.co.uk/EO2013 to be sent a taste of what the database can offer. You will receive two PDFs: one a summary page of your school’s profile, the second your position nationally based on your five A* to C including English and maths (without equivalents) performance mapped against prior attainment. Join SSAT, and you will be sent the full Educational Outcomes.


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