Features: April 13th, 2007

Efficiency and the Information Goldmine

By Brian Sussex

‘Reform’ is a word sweeping through Whitehall with changes being made within the Child Support Agency, judicial system and Home Office to ensure they work effectively and deliver the best possible service to the British public. As local authorities also work towards reducing bureaucracy and broadening accessibility, we need to recognise the crucial role that data can have in helping us achieve this, and if we are truly committed to tightening and improving services, we need to make the best use of it. If an authority does not make full use of the data available to them, how can their services and support be targeted effectively to meet the changing needs of their community?

In Children and Young People’s Services, data takes the form of pupil and staffing information collected by schools and local authorities every day. This data is everything to us. Simply re-using information which already exists in the system, such as a pupil’s address, can save hours in administration time and reduces the risk of errors. Analysing the same data collectively can help present a realistic, up-to-the-minute picture of Devon’s pupil population and enables us to understand where each child is fitting in to the normal education process. Patterns are easily identifiable, so that appropriate action can be taken promptly if new trends are uncovered.

Collecting the data

Here in Devon, we begin with the premise that data should be entered once and re-used again and again, reducing the need to repeat the same data entry task. This has sometimes produced some challenges for our IT team but has been well worth the effort.

Schools across the country store detailed pupil and staff information electronically within a management information system (MIS). In Devon, we take this data and use it to inform our own systems. We use Capita Children’s Services’ EMS system to manage our pupil records and using a facility within this system (called B2B), we are currently exchanging data automatically with 60% of our schools. Exchanging data in this way gives us confidence in its validity and has had such a positive impact on efficiency that we will be rolling out this capability to all schools in the next few months.

We open a file for every child on entering school, which remains with them throughout their education lifetime. If a child applies for a work permit, we use the same address and pupil name data to process the application, rather than starting with a blank form. Likewise, we are able to see that a teacher is also a parent, rather than having and maintaining separate records for each of their roles. This year, in our efforts to re-use existing data, we brought in data for children of pre-school age from the Health Authority; so that all the information on new school starters did not have to be entered by hand.

Countering truancy

A critical part of any authority’s ability to work effectively and manage issues such as truancy or poor behaviour in schools is their ability to understand the nature of the problem and evaluate the effectiveness of any strategies or services in place. Our teams can produce complex analytical reports, using live information such as free school meal applications, to measure the extent to which poverty, for instance, is affecting the number of exclusions in the region. A recent analysis of the staffing data we received from schools, for example, revealed that a large number of headteachers will be retiring within the next five years, so we can start to plan accordingly, ensuring this does not create a problem for schools when the time comes. With accurate data, we can tackle challenging issues head-on and see which strategies are most successful in resolving them; increasing our effectiveness.

Pupil attendance is always high on the agenda for any authority and data can prove a formidable tool in tackling truancy. In the coming months processes will be in place to enable schools to automatically send the week’s attendance information to the authority every Friday afternoon so it is available to us at the beginning of each week. This up-to-date information is like gold dust to Education Welfare Officers as it allows them to follow up unauthorised absences swiftly; targeting the repeat offenders. They can examine this data more deeply, detecting patterns in absence that might be developing, such as a pupil which continually misses school every Thursday. The information helps them work with the family and uncover the nature of the problem (perhaps the child’s mother starts work early every Thursday and can not ensure that the pupil gets to school) and then offer effective solutions or support.

Supporting pupils

The provision of free school meals service is also being improved by sharing data. Currently, paper-based applications would be processed by authority staff and a paper-based update sent to schools, often on a termly basis. This meant that some families might experience a delay before their child received free school meals. We are currently working on a solution which will mean we simply exchange the data via a file which is downloaded directly into the schools’ own systems and can be acted on immediately. This also means that if a family comes off benefits, the school is informed quickly and free meals are not provided unnecessarily. Low-income families get their free school meals quickly and our resources are maximised for the benefit of those in most need.

Regular data exchanges between schools and authorities have been particularly important in achieving our ‘Every Child Matters’ objectives. If a child is taken off roll at a school we can ascertain very quickly whether they have been picked up by another school in the area, and if not, we have developed a system for confirming whether they are under the care of another authority or are being home-educated. If we discover a child has not arrived where we think they should be, we can then send Welfare Officers to their homes or previous school to ascertain where they are. This way we can ensure that every child remains under our care and our responsibility until we know whether they have moved to another authority.

If we want to make a real difference to the lives of the people we serve, it is imperative that we begin to look more closely at the wealth of data we amass each day. There may well be a number of questions raised in doing this, but we could gain a better understanding of what people need in order to deliver more intelligently and more effectively for our communities.

Brian Sussex is the Senior Education Officer for ICT, Children and Young People’s Services, Devon County Council