A Guide for new Data Managers

I initially wrote this piece 01/06/2015, then offered it up to other DMs for comment, an anonymous contributor added the text in blue, whilst http://chaschooldatanetwork.org.uk/ added the text at the bottom in purple. All of this enhances the guide and demonstrates the strength of the Data Manager community. Hope it helps.

A couple of weeks ago I received this comment:

“Hi Peter! I am so excited to have stumbled upon your blog! I’ll be starting my first role ever as a school data manager in 5 weeks!! What advice would you give to someone like me who is keen on preparing and educating myself to be as effective as possible in this role.”

So advice for being an effective data manager? I must admit it was sort of tempting to give one of those glib, vague responses people give on subjects such as ‘tips for a successful marriage’, where there are far too many variables to give relevant, helpful, personal advice.

But I wrote down the request on my to-do list and then I woke up one day and had a good long hard look in the mirror. Get blogging the mirror said to me, and do it properly. So here it is:

OK, so let’s start with the vague stuff… ‘the five knows’:

  • Know Your Role
  • Know Your School
  • Know Education
  • Know People
  • Know Yourself

I’ll revisit these ‘five knows’ throughout this post, but for now, I’m just hanging them up there, let’s talk turkey…

Prior to starting

  • Assess your skills and experience – what are your strengths and weaknesses?

Have you worked in education before? If not there is a big learning curve to tackle to get on top of all the data that exists, data analysis timings, cycles and rules, educational terms and language. All of this comes with experience… but initially you will want to feel confident enough that when someone says “How is the progress of SEN students in Y10 looking?” that you have some idea that they are talking about students with Special Educational Needs in Year 10 and how they have achieved or are predicted to achieve in relation to other students (internally or nationally or both) from a particular starting point to now.

So the acronyms and language that are used are a potential initial barrier to understanding what is required of you, always ask if you are not sure. Those in the education world are often so used to jargon that they forget to explain it to new support staff. If you are unsure, ask, if you feel a wally asking – then get on a data manager forum (facebook, SSAT, edugeek) and ask there. All data managers have been there and are generally very willing to help. If all else fails…. Ask me: dataeducator@outlook.com.

  • Play to your strengths

If this role is new to you, plan to initially play to your strengths. There is no manual to school data management. The cat can be skinned many ways. If you are skilled in systems management then use your MIS (management information system) to get your answers to staff whilst you understand how everything works. If like me, you are more of an analyst, you’ll probably feel more confident getting your data out of the MIS and playing about with it, either yourself or in additional schools analysis software.

  • Brush up on your IT skills in particular your excel skills

I personally believe that having advanced excel skills is one of the key skills needed for a school data manager role even more important in my opinion than previous experience. However since starting my career in data I’m astonished by the amount of people who have little knowledge of excel. Not only teachers but also data managers as well

Even if you have no experience of using MIS systems or working in schools if you have good advance excel knowledge the skills you use to do calculations on a spreadsheet is the same skills needed to analyse data on a MIS system. It also helps when you are new to the role as even if you have never used the school’s MIS system before when starting the role you still will be able to do some really advanced data analysis in excel.  Plus showing off your excel skills when you are new to the role is a great way to impress management

There is a youtube channel called excel is fun https://www.youtube.com/user/ExcelIsFunwhich I have used in the past. they have some great videos and I have learnt a lot from watching this channel and I would consider myself an advanced excel user.

  • Research your role

Hopefully you’ll have at least a job description/person spec to go on.. .as discussed in this post here, the role of data manager can be extremely varied between schools. Obviously as you’ve landed the job the school believe that you can fulfill the duties as listed in the job description. Divide the listings in the JD into confident/comfortable/uncertain/clueless and go from there. Nobody (I hope) expects you to be an expert on your first day… typically it takes 3 months (my opinion) to find your feet in a new school.

  • Time of year

How quickly you can be / effective you can be initially depends somewhat on the time of year that you are starting. I think March – June is an excellent time to move into the role as the bulk of the year is completed and you can take time to learn and to assess in time to make changes in time for the new school year. Also in this period, teachers have more time to engage with you and talk about what they’d like in place for September.

On Arrival

  • Who, what, when and how

The good thing (!) these days, in contrast to 10 or even 5 years ago is that data has generally become an established function within schools with dedicated or at least defined staff to undertake the requisite processes. So hopefully, you are either taking over from a previous data manager or relieving duties from a probably overworked member of SLT, or a combination of both. So the first thing to find out upon starting a new role is who did what before you arrived, how did they do it and when did they do it. An organised school might have a data calendar, at the very least they should have an internal assessment calendar.

Key Questions are:

  • How many times a year is data collected?
  • What is input and where? Are key stage collections staggered or all together?
  • Are the collected grades the student’s current (working at) grades or are they predictions?
  • What is the QA process on the grades?
  • How long do you have to turn the data into analysis?
  • Is an established system already in place for analysis? (i.e. is it all managed within the MIS, do you have an external analysis system to do it, does the school do it themselves?)

Your task at this point is to understand, practice and master these procedures. These are your absolute bread and butter and the most important thing to get on top of. If you don’t like the processes you can refine them (with school agreement) but the first thing to get on top of is understanding all the mechanisms and how they are currently working before you begin to try to improve them.

So this might require you to train on the MIS, the professional analysis system (should you have one), Excel etc. With all of the above, practice makes perfect.

  • School mechanics

Another important foothold to secure early in your role is to understand how the school operates. Firstly, who is in charge of what? Who is in charge of Assessment, Curriculum, Behaviour, Learning & Teaching etc.

Get to know your line manager, understand their vision for your role and understand what the school expects of you.

Get to know the school structure, how do tutor groups work, are there curriculum pathways, houses? Understand that each year group is possibly on a different mix of qualifications, understand who and why. Understand what happens in Science, IT, Technology!

Middle leaders – the engine room. Meet with these people and aim to help them as much as possible. They hold the key to effectiveness (my opinion).

Investigate who likes to use data, who is comfortable with it and who doesn’t like using it or trust in it. This can help you to build effective relationships.

  • Assume nothing

School systems are awash with data. But how can you be sure that they are accurate? Query and question existing processes and form an opinion on how robust they are and whether you have confidence in the data. I cannot imagine starting at a school and not double checking all the recorded KS2 starting points for students in each year group. Case in point – a data manager I know of – on arrival to their new school found that SIMS had been used to calculate average starting points instead of revisiting the raw data and working it out from the APS (average point score). This meant that for example a 5B in English and a 4B in maths came out as a 4A in SIMS… but in fact some of these starting levels were actually a 5C. This could have been a critical mistake if the Data Manager had not double checked all this data as the basis of all progress measure were relying on this information.

Initiative & Inquisitiveness

I personally believed that these are two qualities that helped me progress so quickly as a data manager.

Sometimes we wait for people to show us how to do things or if you are unable to do something not bother and conclude that it can’t be done. What you will find in education is that very few schools have the money to invest in training and that you may never receive any training at all. You therefore have to sometimes self teach yourself or be willing to do some extra training in your own time

I found that most of my MIS knowledge came from trial and error. Sometimes I just had to use my initiative to get the MIS system to do what I need it to do. Often it takes a number of trial and errors but in the process discover new features about the MIS system. Hardly any of my current knowledge came from doing any training

Some of my knowledge also came from doing some reasearch in my spare time and asking other data managers either face to face or on the forums mentioned earlier in the article. This is becoming extremely important now with all of the education reform as there is a wealth of knowledge out there if you take the time to find it yourself.

Moving forward

Within a few months you should feel more confident within your role and whilst the data manager role can be extremely varied between schools you should have similarities between what you do and what others do. Join a network, talk to local data managers.

Seek further training opportunities and perhaps put yourself forward for the National Data Manager Award. Brush up on your IT skills and I would recommend doing some VBA training in your spare time as VBA can help to develop more complex and powerful spreadsheets. You may even want to start learning a programming language and perhaps start thinking about developing your own systems that would aid in data analysis.

Depending on your school and how strategic your role is, you may be able to help shape the design and structure of education analysis within your setting. Remember the primary function of a school is to educate, not necessarily to have ground breaking data analysis. The education comes first and so there will be often be situations where you may feel you are being inefficient. However if you are improving the efficiency of others then this is a trade off that might be worth making.

If you liken a school to an educational engine, then the data within it acts as a lubricant, too much then the engine will be overwhelmed and being blowing smoke all over the important work that it needs to complete. Too little data, or poorly directed data and parts of the engine may not work as effectively as it can. The ultimate goal is to strike the balance, to add insight where it is needed and to remove barriers that might exist. Facilitate, not dictate.

Everything Peter says is absolutely essential for any new data manager. If you embrace everything he says above, you won’t go far wrong at all.

There are other points to consider as well:

  • If you’re not responsible for exams, make sure you build a solid relationship with your exams officer or exams lead. This person will be responsible for administering and managing all the exams within school and will know how they’re graded, their values and will likely be the essential person on the day the results come into school. Having a solid relationship with the exams lead will make your job that bit easier. This also goes with the person who manages your MIS system (if that person isn’t you, that is) – again, this person will be essential in ensuring you can do your job smoothly
  • Build a close relationship with your headteacher. As data develops within schools, your role is likely to become quite strategic. You may need to advise on what the school’s curriculum should look like or even develop in-school policies on things such as target setting and even assessment. The headteacher will therefore be a key contact for you in school. Indeed, you may have more contact with the headteacher than most staff in your school!
  • Sign up to uk announcements!The DfE have a tendency to sneak in new policies and guidance that may initially seem slight but in hindsight are hugely significant. Recent examples include changes to KS4 and KS5 performance measures. The announcements also help you become more familiar with the weird, frustrating but nevertheless wonderful and zany world of education

Don’t be afraid to have a reasoned, healthy argument (or should that be discussion?) with your head and SLT (senior leadership team). This may be somewhat controversial advice, especially if you’re new to the job, but having a healthy, reasoned discussion or argument with your head or SLT shows you’re passionate and want to ensure everything is done to benefit staff and, most importantly, students. If you don’t agree with how target setting works in school, the analysis package you have is rubbish (or non-existent) or there’s an aspect of your role that you feel isn’t benefiting students, set out your reasons why and bring evidence to back your case up. Again, as data becomes more engrained in schools and as the data manager role becomes more strategic, your opinion is very important and should be valued. Besides, most heads and SLTs like a good debate!

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