Why bother centralising your data?
Schools, Trusts and LAs increasingly ask us how they can centralise their data, but they sometimes don’t know where to start and what their broad options are. Most share the common need of wanting to bring their data together to gain deeper, faster insight into their staff and students, save teachers time endlessly copying and pasting data from multiple systems (and reduce mistakes whilst doing so), whilst saving money by reducing the number of systems they have in the school.
3 ways for centralising your data, and when to do it
From our work with schools, MATs, LAs and governments we’ve seen a lot of different ways of centralising data, but they generally fall into 3 categories.
1. Using Excel/manual exports [best for small schools; MATs with less than 5 schools]
When small, it’s best to keep things simple. Whilst not ideal, excel is the quickest, cheapest and easiest tool to get to do your heavy lifting. Most schools will organise data drops at set times in the year, using permissioned worksheets and data validation to minimise errors, and producing graphs and reports that can act as simple dashboards. New versions of excel can even link live to your systems (we do this in Arbor) so that can be pulled automatically from your MIS, meaning no more data drops and data errors! That said, excel comes with hidden costs, it can involve staff double entering data, takes time to fill in, is prone to errors, and doesn’t scale as your school or MAT grows (in fact it gets harder to administer as you grow).
2. Standardising systems [best for large schools; MATs with more than 5 schools; LAs]
Once a Trust grows to about 5 schools (depending on the complexity of the Trust) the person in charge of collecting and analysing all of the data can often become overwhelmed by the manual process, and as we’ve written about before, this is the time most Trusts look at standardising some core systems to start to automate the process of data collection. It’s worth noting that this step is typically beneficial for all school types; the key is not to leave it too late, as you then end up unpicking all of the manual process within each school.
Once the core systems have been standardised and rationalised into as few systems as practical (e.g. finance, assessment, MIS), then the school, Trust or LA can integrate these systems, ensuring data is only entered once, and use the tools’ internal ability to aggregate their core data and reports. The disadvantage of this approach is the upfront setup time and cost, however if chosen sensibly, these system should be able to payback this in time/money savings within a year or two, lowering overhead, improving reporting capability, allowing the Trust to centralise workflows and communication and ultimately enabling the group to scale.
3. Analytics layer [best for very large schools; MATs with more than 15 schools; LAs]
Without a degree of standardisation in your core systems and data, as described above, achieving an analytics layer can take a lot of time and patience. Custom field names, non-standardisation across schools of assessment, and people simply choosing to record things in different ways at different times lead to increasing complexity. Many systems (like Arbor) integrate with analytics layers such as Microsoft’s PowerBI (which many Trusts are using) out of the box, so once you’ve standardised your MIS, you can spin up an analytics layer in little to no time. This allows you to create custom graphs and charts with the reassurance that the underlying data is accurate - else bad data can lead to bad decisions!
How Arbor can help [click here for slides]
Integrate live with Excel/Google: Every table and report in Arbor can be live linked to Excel or Google sheets [slide 18], meaning no more data drops. Schools and Trusts can collect data instantly from several schools, and generate their own simple dashboards, combining MIS, national, HR and external data to create a holistic view of performance
Standardising systems: we’ve talked about what systems to standardise and when before. Once standardised, Arbor’s Group dashboards and reports instantly aggregate student and staff data across schools, allowing MATs and LAs the ability to centralise data and take action by logging into systems remotely and performing workflows (e.g. attendance follow-ups)
Analytics layer: Arbor integrates with PowerBI out of the box via the excel integration, allowing groups to build their own simple Analytics layers. Our free and open API can also be used for deeper integration with Business Intelligence tools.