School Intelligence Needs A Revolution To Support Leaders And Teachers

The current crisis has made it clearer than ever that traditional MIS systems need transforming to cope with learning anywhere and distance teaching trends, as well as with the emergence of multi-site trusts. It’s time to empower teachers and leaders with real-time intelligence, argues Winston Poyton

Even with a vaccination on the horizon it’s clear that students will be in and out of schools for the foreseeable future. The crisis has made obvious that an EdTech shake-up is required to ensure students can continue to learn wherever they are based – whether in the classroom or at home. 

It’s also needed to give leadership teams the intelligence they need to make informed decisions on how to improve education. 

The schools and Trusts that have been unable to access critical data during the lockdown period have missed out on the crucial opportunity to analyse their school or Trust’s situation in order to create an agile strategy. One that will enable them to move forward with confidence into the next normal and support them in achieving their goals. However, amidst the chaos, there is a revolution taking place.  

Breaking intelligence out of the office

To improve the life chances of children, teachers and senior leadership teams need accurate intelligence. But this relies on access to real-time data, and the headspace to analyse it and create action plans to intervene at the point of need.  

Traditional MIS are not up to the task. This makes it exceptionally difficult for educators to support students under normal circumstances, never mind to mitigate the increasingly damaging psychological impact the ongoing pandemic is having on their mental health and learning.  

Evidence of this was published in an Ofsted report in November, which warned the pandemic has resulted in most children in England moving backwards with their learning. Among older children, the education watchdog warned of a loss of concentration among those returning to physical classrooms. 

This is accompanied by reports of a decrease in physical fitness and many showing signs of mental distress, with growing concerns over a rise in eating disorders and self-harm. Many schools remain in firefighting mode according to the report, focusing on solving the practical problems around operating bubbles and responding to new COVID-19 outbreaks in the school.  

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that traditional MIS have been kept at arm’s reach from school leadership teams and teachers for years. Locked firmly behind closed doors in administration offices, traditional MIS software has handicapped the education sector. This has created scenarios where teachers and senior leadership teams are unable to access the critical data they need while working remotely. The very real impact of this is the inability to make essential strategic decisions about the direction they want to take their school or Trust, at a time when having a clear strategy is essential.  

Case study – Bury Grammar School 

One grammar school that has first-hand experience of the benefits releasing intelligence from the MIS into the hands of senior leadership teams and teachers can bring is Bury Grammar School.  

In 2017, the school had two separate systems with the same MIS provider. Neither system spoke to the other nor allowed for data to be shared between them. This was particularly problematic as Bury Grammar School wanted to bring together its group of five schools under the umbrella Diamond model. It had become an overly convoluted process to access the separate systems. The IT department quickly realised it needed a MIS that offered the school better data-sharing functionalities, enabling them to more effectively pool resources. 

Bury Grammar School chose to move to iSAMS by IRIS, as it supported their goal of moving each of the schools forward through a single interface. Now, using one system, members of staff can flexibly teach across each of the five schools without having to duplicate work by inputting details into the system twice.  

Based across multiple sites, the grammar school has benefited from a system that can be accessed anywhere, whenever needed. Using this  web-based system has saved Bury Grammar School time and energy – a critical factor that has allowed remote teaching and working throughout the lockdown periods as schools were forced to close.  

This hasn’t just benefited the IT team. It’s now so quick and easy to access data, members of staff across all five schools can get all the information they need about academic grades, attendance and any safeguarding issues directly from the MIS. They no longer need to go and see “that person” to ask “that question”. Empowering the grammar school’s teachers and  leadership teams with direct access to the MIS has meant they can quickly make intelligence-driven decisions around safeguarding measures such as bullying or students falling behind in their learning progress, and step in to support individual students at the time and critical point of need. 

Engagement with parents

Having one central MIS has also enabled Bury Grammar School to encourage and maintain strong engagement with parents, both before and throughout the lockdown period. In 2017 the school rolled out specific parent-focused apps to encourage a home-school learning initiative, which hadn’t been supported by the previous school MIS. With this solution in place before the pandemic, the school was in an enviable position to transition quickly and efficiently to remote teaching, and keep parents informed and engaged with their children’s learning. 

The school has had very positive feedback from parents, with one saying “[I] love how slick and easy they [Parent Portal and iParent app] are to use”. The established weekly newsletter surrounding the iParent App has also been a lifeline for keeping parents engaged at key milestones, such as when school reports are released.  

Single source of truth

One of the key benefits highlighted by the case of Bury Grammar School is how a cloud-based MIS can provide schools and Trusts with one single source of trusted data – regardless of how big the school is or where it is located.  

The new generation of senior leaders in schools and Trusts are digital natives. Savvy to the benefits technology can bring to the classroom and how they teach across the Trust, they expect an ‘Apple’ experience in their place of work.  

But traditional MIS are not built with the ‘consumer’ in mind. Often requiring lots of additional ‘bolt-ons’ to make them helpful, they don’t enable teachers or senior leadership teams to be agile. In some cases, traditional MIS requires teachers to wait 24 hours while it generates reports. This is simply not fit for purpose for today’s time-poor, digital native teachers stepping into senior positions across education. They are proactively looking for one trusted partner and a solution that can provide the real-time intelligence they desperately need.  

Another school that has seen the tangible benefits of a cloud-based MIS that provides a single source of truth is Aylesbury Grammar School. As a school, the Registration Manager module from iSAMs by IRIS is used every lesson and many teachers use the iTeacher App to do this even when they’re on the playing fields. In practice, this allows teachers and senior leadership teams to monitor for trends such as missed classes or ongoing behavioural issues across form groups and even families with pupils in different year groups.  

For example, senior leadership teams will be able to see if siblings start to miss classes on the same day and so can step in to see if there are any problems at home and if safeguarding measures are required. Having easy access to this intelligence enables them to step in at the point of need to provide students with support.  

Having a single source of truth also empowers middle leadership, such as heads of departments and form teachers, to lead a grass-roots level up approach to safeguarding and wellbeing. For example, these teachers can record notes against specific students in the MIS and tag in other students. So, if there’s been a bullying incident, because of the ability to tag in friends and other students who may have witnessed the event take place, middle leadership can clearly and quickly see if there will be a wider impact on students more broadly, enabling them to look further than just the victim and the bully. 

This is important as from a health and wellbeing perspective, any witnesses to such an incident could be just as affected by the events that took place as the student who was directly attacked or hurt. This clear transparent flow of data enables middle leadership to make those in senior leadership teams more aware of the true extent to which an event will ripple out and impact students. When combined with their first-hand knowledge, of say, which students typically hang out with others in a friendship group, it enables a grass-roots level up approach to safeguarding.  

Senior leadership teams do not need to waste and energy on basic processes. Nor is it what they signed up to do. They should not have to resort to inputting evidence in return for minimal insight. Teachers and senior leadership teams need an agile MIS that can record outcomes in real-time, and feedback intelligence directly into their hands so they can make informed decisions. 

The future for leadership teams 

As Bury Grammar School and Aylesbury Grammar School discovered, what’s needed is a MIS embedded across the whole school or Trust estate. One that makes it easier to access vital intelligence and provides that crucial single source of truth. And the revolution is underway -an approach that will give teachers time back to focus on their love of teaching by using integrated technology solutions to take away the headaches.  

The ability to look at real-time data means senior leadership teams can empower middle leaders to proactively make even more of an impact on the life chances of students. As shown in the above examples, middle leadership can clearly see where and when a student will need intervention or a bespoke learning environment putting in place. And a connected MIS gives them the ability to track a student’s progress as they move from key stage 1 to key stage 2 and beyond. Ensuring that no student falls behind in their learning and teachers can maximise their potential as they move through the school.  

This is also highly beneficial for Ofsted inspections, as it gives middle leadership the confidence to speak to inspectors about all their students; giving clear, informed insights into how they are working to not just ensure they are on track but on how they are enhancing their life chances.  

For heads of Trusts, this grassroots up approach empowers the next generation of senior leaders in education. It gives middle leadership confidence and also the exposure to what it is to run a school at a senior level. This insight in turn also helps senior leaders develop and retain their staff. As with this exposure and experience, middle leaders are able to move into more senior positions within the Trust and buy into the ethos of the school. 

It’s time to substantially change the market and enable education leaders to create better insights from integrated technology for school improvement, collaboration, and communication. Trusts will be able to make proactive, data driven decisions that drive teaching and learning standards and ensure they achieve their strategic goals. 

COVID-19 may prove to be the turning-point EdTech needs to bring a radical new approach to MIS that will help educators see the woods from the trees. And set them up in the best possible way to move forward into the next normal with confidence.  

Winston Poyton, Senior Product Director at IRIS Software Group 

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