Over the past decade, giant strides have been made in how we manage and analyse data. Hosting platforms like
Amazon Web Services have made it easy and cheap to store data securely in the cloud. Software as a Service providers like Salesforce allow non-technical people to customise complex data management software, and offer sophisticated APIs to those wanting to connect to that data. And visualisation tools like Tableau allow analysts to draw insights from data in a graphical and intuitive way.
Or at least that’s how I felt about the world until 2012, when I started working in education. Because over the past decade, giant strides really haven’t been made in how we manage and analyse data in UK schools. At Assembly, we think it’s time that changed.
A bit later I’ll tell you more about what we’re up to at Assembly, but first it’s worth articulating the things we think need addressing:
Your MIS won’t solve all your problems...
The past few years have seen an explosion in schools’ functionality wishes, and your MIS can’t possibly handle them all. Don’t blame the suppliers though – they offer complex products handling all manner of tasks across the school. And of course, before suppliers can use valuable resources to develop funky new functionality, they need to spend money on keeping statutory functionality up-to-date, like Department for Education census returns, or exams board integrations.
...but non-MIS suppliers struggle to access the data they need to compete.
Problem 1 has led to the emergence of an ecosystem of products around the MIS. This “appification” of education is an excellent thing; features may get closer attention - and therefore better solutions - if tackled by a focused supplier as opposed to an MIS-developing generalist.
However, life is hard for the school-facing startup who wants to connect to the school MIS. I’ve met companies who have invested upwards of £100k in solving this problem before they have any real market share. More commonly, startups just defer the problem of MIS integration until they have scale and hope schools won’t balk at having to re-enter pupil names manually into their otherwise exciting product.
There isn’t an easy way for schools to experiment with new technology.
Imagine you’re that plucky innovative provider, and you solve problem 2. So now it’s time to sell to schools! Except, it turns out, that’s even harder. There’s still no widely-used app store for education, and sales teams are prohibitively expensive to build and maintain.
Assessment is evolving, but technology isn’t keeping up.
Assessment Without Levels is changing how schools approach assessment in incredibly exciting ways. Following guidance from the Commission on Assessment Without Levels, schools assessment strategies are becoming more sophisticated, with differentiated approaches for formative, summative and standardised assessment. Edtech companies are starting to solve pieces of this jigsaw: question banks like Diagnostic Questions and Interactive Achievement help schools with formative assessment, for example. National test providers like GL, CEM and Hodder also offer materials for benchmarking pupil progress against a standardised sample. And the DfE publishes plenty of useful national performance data (though not always in the most usable formats).
That’s encouraging, but nobody is doing enough to knit these data points together. Most assessment data collection is manual: teachers mark tests offline and manually input data into the school MIS or online markbook. More depressing still, analysing that data often involves manual Excel jiggery pokery. Which is why a majority of schools (56%) cited “Recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data” as burdensome in the government’s workload challenge survey. The gradebook needs to be rethought, and fast.
Academy groups were created, but software for them was not.
If individual schools struggle to find good gradebook and analytics solutions, academy trusts experience a whole new world of pain. After all, schools join networks at different times for different reasons, and may well use different MIS. So how on earth do you even get hold of the data from those systems, let alone analyse it?
You can’t measure impact if you can’t access pupil data.
Inspiring organisations of all sizes working within the sector have an even harder time gathering and analysing impact data. So they either give up, cobble a custom solution together, or send around spreadsheets. Quite apart from the hassle involved, this creates all kinds of security and data quality risks.
Our response to these issues is to create Assembly: a new, secure data platform for the education sector backed by Ark and NEON. Assembly connects to a school’s MIS and extracts and stores that data securely in the cloud. The platform then hosts school improvement apps that interact with the data if and when required. It’s fully secure, and at all times schools control who gets access to their data through our intuitive permissions dashboard.
Of course, we won’t solve the issues outlined above immediately, but our goal is to tackle all of them in the coming months and years. And we’ve already got an answer to problems 1 and 2: the Assembly Platform, currently in beta, offers developers low-cost access to school MIS data with no upfront fees. We’re also about to launch a free school benchmarking tool to deal with the “public data” component of problem 4 - check back on our blog in a few days’ time for more details or sign up to our mailing list for regular news and product updates.
To be clear, we’re not an MIS provider, and we don’t want to be. We want to work with all existing MIS companies, and we’ll leave core school data tasks in their capable hands while we build a platform to address the six problems outlined here.