Rob Clark

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From GCSEs and T levels to apprenticeships and degrees, further education colleges offer students a broad spectrum of post-16 study options.

Variety is one of the sector’s greatest strengths. But giving students choice also creates a considerable challenge for colleges in managing all the data and reporting requirements that go along with this.

A new white paper, The rise of data-driven further education, published by Education Software Solutions (ESS), looks at the changing role of information in colleges. With contributions from senior leaders in FE institutions across the UK, the paper will help institutions to ensure the data they generate is used effectively to drive positive change.

Data, its challenges, and its strengths

From student recruitment and widening participation figures to the latest information on funding and learner progress, colleges handle a significant amount of data. But it’s not all to fulfil government reporting requirements, as Jon Cole, chief digital and information officer at Morley College emphasised.

“Management Information (MI) was initially seen as something colleges had to do – a mandatory requirement. Now there is a realisation that everything that the college does is underpinned by data,” he said. “The stakes are pretty high. We have to be able to analyse the data accurately and in real time.”

Colleges found that increasing expectations to provide an excellent student experience, shifting national priorities, and pressure to deliver new qualifications all contribute to the pressure to ensure data management systems are up to the task.

As Louise Jones, director of management information systems at York College highlighted, “The fact is that colleges rely on data. Without it, you would be nowhere; you’ve got to know where you stand.

“The importance of management information system (MIS) teams has increased, but the team has to have the support, the money and the development time – if not the college will struggle without it.”

Supporting success

While data gathering and analysis can often be regarded as a box ticking exercise, many colleges held the alternative view that solid data gathering helps, rather than hinders the success of their institutions.

Russel Sanderson, director of learner data services at NCG made the point that when data is managed centrally and shared, the efforts of the full institution are brought together in one place for all to see.

“There are people who don’t understand what data means when they see it and it’s a challenge to make sure we educate our audience so they know there are some things that really matter,” he said.

“Everyone needs to understand how the levers that they pull make the numbers come out at the other end.”

Towards innovation

The white paper explored how data was increasingly becoming the driver of innovation in many colleges.

Weston College launched its own app to reduce the spread of Covid-19, for example, by encouraging students to test from home. Using the data from the app, the college could see whether there were pockets of people not testing and take steps to address this.

NCG created a student recruitment dashboard for the group, providing individual colleges with comparable data and admissions heat maps they could use to see where students were coming from and monitor their own performance.

Scott Mulholland, chief information and data officer at NCG, talked about the impact of giving staff access to this information for the first time.

“I think it will change behaviour in quite a dramatic way. Staff are going to be much more targeted in the way they do their recruitment.”

At Morley College, an innovative Amazon-style approach to recruitment is in its early stages, where students applying or enrolling online are shown other courses that might be of interest based on their previous preferences. “It is about making use of our extensive reserves of data to affect consumer behaviour,” Jon explains.

To the future

The white paper underlined the key foundations of good data management, from staffing and training on data literacy through to investment in a strong IT infrastructure.

Scott Mulholland believes that when used well, data will bring the FE sector further in line with higher education.

“In HE you can use data to compare benchmarks and do deep comparative analysis and I think that would be very useful for FE too,” he said.

There was broad agreement among contributors to the white paper that access to good quality data and the ability to analyse it simply was helping them to recruit students, ensure they make progress and improve employability in their communities.

Rob Clark is customer account and sales director for UNIT-e at Education Software Solutions and works with FE colleges and training providers across the UK. Read the interviews in full to find out how the data being generated in your FE institution could be used more effectively to drive success in The rise of data-driven further education.

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