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Data: How do we use it in schools?

Posted on: May 15th 2020

As part of our ongoing blog series, we connect with Harris staff across the Federation to discuss their roles as part of the Federation, their work in education and how we as a Federation are working to make a difference in various educational areas.

This week, we spoke to Head of Data, Derek Hills and Data and MIS analyst Peter Smith about the presence of data in schools and how it is used. Forming part of the Central Data team, both have worked at the Federation collectively for almost 10 years and have extensive experience in the use and analysis of educational data.

  1. 1. Introduce yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

DH: My name is Derek and I am the Federation’s Head of Data and MIS which effectively means I am responsible for the analysis of all phases of education across our trust and ensuring that we get the most out of our MIS.

PS: My name is Peter Smith and I am one of the Federation’s Data analysts, analysing data across all our academies – from student and staff to assessment data.

  1. 2. What is your background in data/education?

DH: After leaving university, I started working in financial services and did so in York, Cambridge and Edinburgh. I always had an ambition to work in London but wanted a career that was fulfilling and one I believed I could make a difference, so I pursued a role in Education, and I have loved every day of it since.

PS: I have worked in schools, funnily enough, ever since I left school. My first role was in my old school, where I worked as an IT and Science Technician. I have worked in education collectively for over 20 years. Coming up to the millennium, the discussion for new data management programmes started to arise. Part of the project I was involved with back then was moving from traditional DOS based systems to at the time, newer MIS systems. So, I’ve been working in student data specifically for around 20 years. That initial experience, brought me down to Harris Academy Purley initially then to the Central Office in 2016.

  1. 3. How long have you been at the Fed?

DH: Except for a small ‘sabbatical’ I have worked for the Federation for almost 10 years. I worked at HBAED for a little under 4 years and loved every minute of it. I worked with some brilliant, friendly and inspirational people, many of whom still work in the federation or at HBAED itself. The opportunity came for me to work for the Federation centrally to try to implement much of what I developed in that school across all of our schools and to improve the way we collect and use data.

PS: I have been within the Federation since 2011 and moved to work within the Federation’s Central Office Data team in 2016. I initially worked at Harris Academy Purley moving on to work across three different academy sites as Data manager of Harris Academy Peckham, Invictus and Purley.

  1. 4. Tell us a bit about your role, what does it involve?

DH: I think my role is one that evolves quite frequent and as a team we try to be fluid to meet the needs of our colleagues across the Federation. Ultimately, my vision when I joined the Federation was to try and reduce workload in schools by producing high quality, and crucially, actionable data centrally and remove that burden from our schools. I truly hope that we have achieved and continue to achieve that.

PS: Big part of the role also, is that we provide technical support around the MIS systems and all things data. As a direct line to academies, we help with queries, training and anything else academies need on a day to day basis. In 2016, we moved to a new data system and went into each academy to conduct training with key personnel to help them understand how to use the system within their various roles. We would also hold presentations for teaching staff, ensuring teaching staff can also use the system efficiently. This normally happens when we take on a new academy also, Ockendon being the most recent to get training and system ready. Our main goal as a support function is to continue to provide efficient and helpful assistance, so in conjunction to the direct line support we offer, we are trialling the use of MS Teams and remote support to ensure our support remains accessible and efficient to academies everywhere as and when they need it. This is especially important when we deal with new starters at academies, where staff can conduct handovers themselves rather than wait for a member of the central staff to conduct this, though we are always here for support and can be called in if need be.
5.          How is data used in schools today?

DH: Data has always played a pivotal part in schools, but again that is something that changes, and we need to be meeting the changing demands in schools. Our role is to make the collection of data easier, to make it more actionable and accessible so that it can have an impact on pupil outcomes. We don’t want data for data’s sake, it needs to make a difference

PS We have definitely seen a shift so that there is now much less focus on collecting substantial amounts of data and that the quality of data is the primary focus. This is obviously a good thing for schools, as it means staff can focus less on the erroneous task of collecting data and more on using the quality data Ultimately, the goal is to help maintain, determine and analyse getting the best education for the students.

  1. 6. How does data help students?

DH: We know that high quality data can be used to as a tool to support school improvement by helping leaders to identify the needs of our pupils and to be able to adapt to those needs.

I use the words “support improvement” as opposed to “drive improvements” which people often use because improvements are driven by teachers, leaders, governors … data is there to arm them with the right information to make hopefully the right decisions but it is our colleagues in our schools that drive improvements, not a table of numbers and kids names.

PS: Absolutely, it goes back to what I was saying about data being utilised in more focused areas. Data is now more than ever greatly interconnected, enabling us to a see the full picture. Going back twenty years, systems were entirely separate in their functions. It was very difficult to obtain an accurate overview as quickly and efficiently as we can now. Which again, shows how things have changed and continue to change in the world of student data.

  1. 7. How frequently do senior leaders request data and what type of data do they receive?

DH: The way that we operate means that in the main, data is constantly accessible to all colleagues across the Federation. We are investing in the development of Power BI to improve the accessibility and usability of data and we are fortunate that our MIS system, Bromcom, gives our colleagues access to high quality data analysis which they can use in the classroom and throughout the school. The data that we produce has multiple objectives which including supporting pupil and colleagues in schools, to ensure equality and that all pupils achieve irrespective of their background or needs.

In recent years, we have significantly reduced the number of data collections to reduce workload for colleagues in school, so our responsibility it to make this data smarter and faster to use.

PS: Our system as Derek said, is designed to be user friendly. Aside from assessment and other areas we obtain and analyse data for, staff can use the system themselves to quickly and efficiently find what they are looking for.

  1. 8. How are targets and flightpaths created?

DH: We haven’t used flightpaths for over 5 years, they aren’t fit for purpose. The Federation doesn’t set targets for pupils, we work in tandem with colleagues in our schools to give them information from the pupils Key Stage 2 achievements so that they can create informed targets for pupils that are crucially personable and achievable based on the child’s abilities and needs.

PS: Use of flightpaths are redundant for us, as they assume all students make linear progress. This is definitely not the case; progress now is more irregular or “spikey” as they like to say if we drew up a graph.

9.              What challenges do we face using data in schools?

DH: I think nationally schools have had challenges over the years in how much data they collected and how much work was involved for teachers and leaders in analysing data. I have always sought to reduce the latter and see it as the key part of my job. We have reduced the number of collections here at Harris significantly over recent years, something I am pleased to say seems to be happening elsewhere, but I think there is probably still work to be done.

PS: Alongside the amount data collected, we also are trying our best to adapt to the ever-changing nature of it all. As well as supporting on data, we are constantly striving to ensure we are supporting academies technically and promote best practice where possible.

Why Harris?

DH: When I joined Harris, specifically Harris Boys’ Academy East Dulwich, we only had 9 schools so it was quite a different place in terms of its size and breath, but I think crucially the culture and vision has always remained the same which, I believe is essentially to work together as a family to improve the life chances of the pupils we serve. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in the company of our CEO and his drive and desire to increase the life chances of generation after generation of young people, whatever their background, is inspiring and infectious.

PS: Initially, I did not have much experience with working in a federation or multi-academy trust. Having spent just under 10 years at Harris, I’ve been able to really appreciate being in an organisation that is at the forefront of a lot of things, in some respects I’d like to think we are a part of that.

  1. 10. What do you feel sets the Harris Federation apart?

DH: That’s a really difficult question to answer, other than the fact that our results are always the best! In my experience, Harris provides you with a platform to achieve, it is supportive, stable and nurturing and it is led by, and I include Lord Harris in this, people who truly want what is best for our kids, our staff and the communities in which we serve.

PS: When we think about MATs in general, I feel that I have been able to collaborate and be supported by the Federation’s vast network. Back then, academies and academy trusts had a much more stigmatic reputation. When I became part of an academy, I was shown the huge benefits of being part of a multi academy trust. When I joined, I suddenly had access to all the support I never had before. When I started in data at a local school, we had a team of 4 and that was it. We didn’t have anyone else to ask support from, there was no-one to ask if we didn’t know something. Once joining, I suddenly joined a network of fantastic people to support and to ask support from.I think that is key difference for me.

Any last thoughts to leave our readers with?

Aside from what I have already spoken about, I think collaboration and sharing of best practice is a real benefit to being part of the Federation. My experience as a governor or a Local Authority has shown me how well organised MATs like us are, not just on collaboration and working practice but on things like central services and procurement, the latter being something that allows money to be spent in the classroom and not mis spent.

Another benefit is one I think we are not very good at promoting and something not many people are aware of. We are very good at highlighting how we transform our pupils lives and not so great on the positive effect we have on our employees and I am living proof of that effect. I have experienced things I never thought would be possible (given that like many of our pupils I am from a significantly disadvantaged background) and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities that have had because of working at Harris.

If you are looking for a career, teaching or non-teaching, where you want to be challenged, to be nurtured and inspired and at the same time work in an environment that is centred on changing lives then this is the place for you. Don’t believe what you read about working for Harris, about working for MATs vs LA’s or about working in education in general. Come and visit one of our schools, you will quickly see they are warm, friendly and fulfilling place to work and grow.


Are you looking for a career in education? Harris Federation is always looking for talented and committed individuals to join us. As part of our forward-thinking and creative team, Harris provides a competitive benefits package and a chance to work amongst a friendly, open central network. If you would like to utilise your experience and skills to contribute to making a difference in education, browse your next opportunity here.     


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