Turning around schools from failing to good, or even outstanding, in a very short space of time is an area where multi-academy trusts excel. In this article, taken from a White Paper produced by Capita SIMS, Dr Albin Wallace, Executive Director of Research and Development at The Education Fellowship, Nick Weller, Chair of the Independent Academies Association and Executive Principal of Dixons Academies, provide their views as to why and how academies achieve this and the role pupil data plays in driving improvement.

Ambitious targets

“Our objective is to get a school that is in difficulties to outstanding within three years,” says Dr Albin Wallace.

Three years is a very short time; however, the motivation behind Dr Wallace’s ambitions, like many others in his position, is the fact that if you take any longer, you will have failed the pupils currently studying at the school.

Increasing numbers of multi-academy trusts are taking on the task of turning around schools that are in difficulties and many have seen good results from using this approach.

Figures from the National Audit Office showed that the proportion of pupils gaining 5 A*–C grades at GCSE, including English and mathematics, increased by 15% in chains of 3 or more academies, compared with 12% for standalone academies.

Turning data into information

When a multi-academy trust adds a failing school to its portfolio, one of the first things it does is look at pupil data and how is it being used. After all, good analysis of information can provide invaluable insights into how best to make a positive impact.

For a trust, having access to solid pupil data is the starting point for all improvement. It’s a tool to monitor progression of individuals and groups, it enables a network of best practice to be built and it supports decision-making. Most of all, data ensures that everyone is fully informed and moving in the same direction when it comes to delivering the best possible outcomes.

“We use data extensively. We believe the key to success is not only the analysis of individual pupil data but also that of micro-populations, such as ethnic groups or particular demographic groups that may be liable to underperformance, as well as, of course, to pupil premium students,” says Dr Albin Wallace.

The cornerstones for driving school improvement through the use of data were outlined as follows.

Consistency is key

Recording data for its own sake is counterproductive; data collection should be focused on achieving specific objectives, improving behaviour, for example.

Dr Wallace warns that one of the biggest enemies of school improvement is lack of consistency. “Consistency is essential in terms of both formative and summative assessment as well as in terms of moderation and applying the appropriate intervention for each student,” he says. “Only once you are sure that what you are measuring and what you are recording is authentic, accurate and up to date, can you then proceed with analysing it and extrapolating from that data.”

There is also a need to get the data out of the school office and into the hands of teaching staff, says Nick Weller from Dixons Academies. “One of the questions we ask when a new school joins is whether the data role needs to be transferred to someone with a more educational slant.”

“It is not just about importing loads of stuff and then printing it out. It’s about having the capacity to analyse the data and being able to say, ‘There’s something up with boys’ attainment over the year, can I explore that a bit?’ This is a higher role than it is often given credit for.”

Tips for using data effectively across a trust to help failing schools

  • Ensure that the processes and systems in place to monitor data are as efficient as possible.

  • Ensure data used for analysis is live and not weeks old.

  • Analyse assessment data regularly — at least four to six times a year.

  • Analyse sub-groups of pupils, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities or English as an additional language, looked-after pupils and those receiving pupil premium.

  • Be consistent in all your data collection and analysis across all of your schools.

  • Ensure that the job of data analyst is in the hands of someone with the skills to ask questions of the data and find out the answers.

  • Only ask for summary data from the school so as not to overburden an academy Head with producing unnecessary data.

Improving outcomes for pupils

Data on attendance, behaviour and progress can tell a compelling story of what is holding a pupil back and help remove barriers. At The Education Fellowship, for example, a three-dimensional picture of each pupil is built, matching up progress information with behaviour and attendance details to help them target interventions with pinpoint accuracy.

“It means that we can target resources into curriculum intervention, more support for teachers, extra teaching assistants or simply a chat with parents; whatever is more appropriate depending on the issue uncovered. This approach has enabled us to lever performance in our schools,” says Dr Albin Wallace.

“The use of the data ensures consistency and means that the resources which are very scarce at the moment in education are being precisely targeted in those areas where you know they will make a major impact.”

Tips for using data to improve pupil outcomes

  • Create a rounded picture of each pupil — even if they appear to be doing well.

  • Only focus on areas of detailed data analysis relevant to the trust’s challenges.

  • Pinpoint where intervention and resources will have the greatest effect.

  • Intervene and use data to track the results of that intervention.

  • Stimulate discussion with teaching staff.

  • Be open and share data across the group so you use the strength of the group to move forward.

Using data to improve leadership and governance

A multi-academy trust relies on the quality of the communication between its management teams at school and trust levels. Many employ advisors or regional managers who can support the schools to achieve their aims and report back at board level.

“The whole business around governance is around challenging and support; supporting the intervention but also challenging whether are we doing enough. Is there more that we could be doing? Asking these questions means we never ever take our foot off the accelerator and are always stretching and pushing forward,” says Dr Wallace.

Data is a very effective way to help everyone in the chain of communication understand exactly what is happening in each school and to help set targets.

Dr Wallace continues, “We look at building aspiration and not putting an artificial ceiling in place in terms of the data. This is not just about achieving our targets; this is about exceeding all expectations. When students are being assessed, they know the level they are performing at, they know what the data says about them and they know that the aspirations are as high as possible for them. School leaders should have the same expectations for their school.”

The board also has a duty to ensure each school leader has a good grasp of data. “What you don’t want is for anyone to get an unpleasant shock when the summative examination and testing period is upon you. The results should reflect the expectations that we have of the school based on ongoing, effective data analysis,” Dr Wallace concludes.

Ofsted’s expectations for leaders

What Ofsted expects of schools in terms of data analysis is a crucial concern for leaders, as the new framework stresses the importance of using data to track pupils and sub-groups of pupils who may be at risk of underperforming.

So the direction of data collection and analysis needs to come from the top and it must be standardised throughout the group in order to offer the greatest benefits.

But it is not only a story of data, according to Nick Weller at Dixons Academies. “Sometimes the choice of KPIs the board chooses tells just one story. Learning walks, shared observation and moderation across the group is also incredibly important and gives a more detailed picture. This kind of quality assurance is essential so you do not miss issues at any level.”

Using data to improve leadership

  • Communicate measurable goals clearly.

  • Reveal an accurate picture of each school’s status with no hidden flaws.

  • Illustrate to Ofsted and other stakeholders the work that is being done to turn a school around.

  • Ensure quality of data across the group.

  • Define mechanisms for collecting data and assimilating it for strategic use.

Conclusion

As multi-academy trusts continue to grow, this model of schooling will be a significant influencer on the educational outcomes for the nation as a whole. The trusts’ ability to turn around failing schools and pupils’ achievement through consistent and regular use of data is helping them analyse areas of underachievement in their schools, any training requirements for teachers and giving leaders the insight required to facilitate effective change.

As the chain of schools grows, the challenge will be ensuring multi-academy trusts retain the ability to make significant improvements. Data, if used effectively, will remain at the crux of achieving this, providing a spotlight on where resources need to be focused and the information to provide targets that are aspirational and achievable.

Last reviewed 20 April 2015