The power of data

25/11/2015 10:13:35 | with 2 comments

Ellie Cotgrave, NGA's Research and Projects Manager, blogs about how governing boards can make best use of data. 


At the Fischer Family Trust’s (FFT) Aspire to Achieve conference in Birmingham earlier this month Tim Leunig, Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Analyst at the Department for Education (DfE), talked about the power of data as a lever for change. He suggested that the difference between more and less successful schools was not level of aspiration, but rather how well that aspiration is turned into reality. This is where data can be very useful, as when used well it not only provides the foundations for school improvement, but can also be used to track progress towards ambitious but achievable targets. Over the past few years, the amount and forms of data available to governing boards has increased significantly – we now have a seemingly endless assortment of dashboards, summaries and databases to choose from. Although too much data to choose from is definitely better than too little, what you should be looking at and when can be confusing. In this blog I will attempt to clear the fog a little and put forward some suggestions for how you can make best use of data in your governing board.

Data dashboards

In my opinion one of the best developments in school data for governors has been the introduction of data dashboards. Last year I blogged about the FFT Governor Dashboard, after attending the E-Learning Awards where FFT won a silver award for its online Governor Dashboard training. NGA helped FFT to develop the original version of the dashboard and recently organised more focus groups to gather feedback on the extended version, and it’s something we’re very proud of being involved with. The FFT dashboard is the only data dashboard aimed specifically at governors, and provides a useful summary of key performance and attendance data in an accessible five page document. I’d recommend that every member of the governing board looks at their school’s FFT dashboard, including those who are less confident with data. If you haven’t seen yours, you can ask your headteacher or data lead to download it for free from FFTAspire (which most schools and academies subscribe to via their local authority or multi-academy trust). It is also possible for governors to get their own log in details for FFT, which grants access to a greater range of school level data (but understandably not pupil level data). Not all governors are likely to need their own log in details, but it’s worth at least a few members of the governing board getting access. Unvalidated 2015 key stage 1 and 2 data has been available on FFTAspire since early October, and unvalidated 2015 key stage 4 data has been published this week.

Around the same time FFT brought out the first version of the governor dashboard in 2013, Ofsted released their School Data Dashboard. Unlike the FFT dashboard this is in the public domain, but as it doesn’t contain as much depth as the FFT dashboard it’s probably of more value to parents than the governing board. However, for this reason alone it is worthwhile for all governors to have a look at their school’s Ofsted School Data Dashboard, so you know what impression prospective parents might have of the school’s performance. In addition, the quintiles comparing your school to similar and all schools nationally are useful and not found elsewhere.

This year, Ofsted has published another dashboard, this time primarily aimed at inspectors and quite separate to the School Data Dashboards on the Ofsted website. The Ofsted Inspection Dashboard consists of a selection of charts from a school’s RAISEonline (see below) which inspectors will use as part of their preparation for undertaking a short inspection of a ‘good’ school. As with the FFT Governor Dashboard, the Ofsted Inspection Handbook is only accessible to the school it concerns and must be downloaded from your RAISEonline account. However, in my opinion it isn’t as user friendly and ‘pretty’ as the FFT Dashboard, and as it contains a greater depth of data than the FFT dashboard I’d argue that not all governors need to see it. However the committee with responsibility for monitoring pupil performance should have a look at it, especially if your school is expecting a short inspection in the near future.


RAISEonline is a web based data analysis system which provides schools, local authorities and inspectors with school performance data. In addition to the online interactive tables and charts, schools can download a summary document. This includes key data displays, and the ones RAISEonline deems most useful for governing boards are marked with a purple ‘G’.  RAISEonline allows governing boards and school leaders to undertake retrospective self-evaluation and school improvement planning, and it is also the data source Ofsted inspectors will use during inspections. Therefore it is important that the governing board has a good understanding of the data available through RAISEonline, and makes best use of it to challenge underperformance and set aspirational targets for school improvement. Although the whole governing board needs to be aware of what RAISEonline says about the school’s strengths and weaknesses, a smaller group within the governing board is more likely to have the time to have focused and detailed discussions with school leaders. One way of approaching this therefore might be for a committee to go through the RAISEonline summary report with senior leaders, and then report the key points back to the full governing board. Unvalidated key stage 1 and 2 data was published in RAISEonline at the end of October, and the key stage 4 data will be published next week. As with FFT, governors can get their own log in details which allow them to see school level data, and it’s worth asking your designated School Administrator to set this up for at least some of your governors. For more guidance on using RAISEonline, see our Knowing Your School  briefings.  

Performance tables and financial benchmarking

Saying the words “performance tables” to most school leaders is likely to result in a less than positive response. From NGA’s experience, doing the same to a group of governors is more likely to result in a sea of blank faces. Although I’m sure that some governors engage with the performance tables, on the whole they are underutilised by governing boards. This may be in part because the performance tables website itself is not particularly user friendly (although the DfE is currently working to rectify this) but it could also be because governors don’t fully understand what the performance tables have to offer.

One of the most useful features is being able to compare your school to similar schools. This allows you to see how well your pupils are performing compared to those in similar settings, but as with all data it’s what you do with this information that really matters. If your school is outperforming other schools, then great, but consider why that might be. What do you do differently? If there are similar schools nearby that are doing less well than you, could you approach them about working together to help them raise standards? Equally, if your school is underperforming compared to others, what are they doing that you’re not? Have a look at the financial data in the performance tables – they might be getting more funding per pupil than you, but how are they allocating this? Are they investing more in their staff than you, and could this mean they have higher quality teaching? To explore this in more depth look at the DfE Schools Financial Benchmarking and Academies Financial Benchmarking websites. These allow you to compare your income and expenditure profile with that of similar schools or academies. Once armed with this information, you can use it to initiate conversations with other schools – this is exactly what a school-led system is all about.

In-school data

All of the data sources discussed so far can provide governing boards with valuable insights into their school’s performance, but they all share a common flaw: the data is retrospective. It’s important that the governing board knows how well their year 6s or year 11s did in national exams, but by the time this information comes to light those pupils may have left the school. It’s therefore vital that the governing board receives pupil progress data from teacher assessments on a regular basis, i.e. at least once a term. This data may be part of the headteacher’s report or it may come via a committee, but either way it needs to be accurate, reliable and timely. But how can you as governors be sure that this is the case? It’s important that at least some of your governors scrutinise the data and are able to question any irregularities. For example, if one of your year 8 English classes seems to be progressing much faster than the other two, why is this? It might be that you have a superstar teaching that class, in which case how is the school making use of his/her talents to help other teachers? Or it could be – whether intentionally or not – that teacher is overstating how well pupils are doing. If this is the case, the governing board needs to know what checks are in place to prevent this happening, and question whether these need to be reviewed. Following the removal of National Curriculum levels, schools will have adopted new pupil progress tracking systems, and it may take time for teachers to fully master these. At the Aspire to Achieve conference, Tim Leunig suggested that schools should provide training or mentoring for those teachers who aren’t assessing accurately, until they get it right.

The main thing is that governors are proactively asking the right questions to ensure that assessment is reliable and consistent, so that the school doesn’t get any nasty surprises come results day. A data savvy governing board is best placed to ensure that their high aspirations for the school become reality. And it’s worth remembering that not all data is numbers – there are many important aspects of school performance which can’t be measured quantitatively, but still need to be monitored. See Element C of the NGA and Wellcome Trust Framework for Governance for suggestions on how this can be done. 


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