11 top tips for using data to support governance of schools and academy trusts

School governors and academy trustees must use data in governance of the schools that they are responsible for. This can be a challenge for governors. Whilst there is typically a finance expert (accountant or similar) on every board, there is less likely to be a data professional – that is someone who can look at a table of data, and determine the right questions to ask of the headteacher. 

This short guide aims to provide some direction for this, with eleven tips for understanding and using data to govern your school or trust. 

For a more complete guide to data-enabled governance, you can register your details using this form, and we’ll be in touch with a free article and follow-up information in early 2022.

This guide borrows some bits from the document ‘Understanding your data: a guide for school governors and academy trustees‘ published by the UK Government (the Education and Skills Funding Agency) in 2018, but shortened, and with some additional points. 

1. Understand the context of your school

Schools capture lots of data about the children and young people that attend their school, beyond attainment and progress data. It’s possible to get a good understanding of a school and its surrounding area by looking at the demographic make-up of the school, such as the percentage of children attending from different ethnic groups, or those with English as an additional language. Free school meal, special educational needs and disability,  and social care rates also contribute to this overall view of the school.

As well as data captured by the school, there’s a lot of data available for anyone to use to help them understand a given area. Datasets like the indices of deprivation and broader population data are useful for giving governors/trustees a good understanding of the needs and characteristics of the area surrounding a school, and therefore the children and families who are likely to make up the school community.

Other good examples of useful datasets are proximity to publicly-accessible green-space, local childhood obesity levels, participation in democracy, and employment and benefits data. 

There may also be contemporaneous influences on school life for which there may be data, such as the Covid pandemic, or changes to local or national policy. 

It can be time-consuming to bring this data together, but it is worthwhile to give a more rounded view of the school and surrounding area.

2. Beware of small numbers

When looking at school data, it’s important to segment your data, so that as well as looking at whole school performance, you look at particular groups. These segments can be male/female, disadvantaged/not disadvantaged, ethnic group, or others, depending on the nature of the school

When looking at these segmented datasets, especially when the data is presented in a red/amber/green colour-coded table, it can be very easy to overlook the fact that some of these segments may have very few children in them. Whilst this does not mean the segment is not important to us as governors, it is useful to understand this context – a change from 0% of children meeting age-related expectations to 100% could mean just one child in a particular segment.

Always ask how many children are in the denominator of any percentages being reported.

3. Use internal data

As well as assessment data that is reported for the whole of the academic year, schools capture in-year data to track pupil progress through the year. It is important that governors can access this information – albeit in an aggregated form.

This information can be vital in helping governors ensure schools are dealing with any issues throughout the year, and are able to target interventions promptly, should appropriate resources be available.

It is important to note, however, that requests for internal data, especially that which is teacher-generated, should be minimised, to avoid over-burdening teachers.

4. Look at your data over time

When using data for support and challenge in your schools, it’s very important to look at data over time – not just one year / term / month in isolation.

Some issues can be cohort-specific, and this will be visible when looking across years. 

A longitudinal view of data is necessary for identifying trends, such as a steady increase in persistent absenteeism, and this information can be used to help determine appropriate courses of action.

5. Make sure you know what is happening to other schools in your area

Whilst you cannot access all data about other schools in the local area, there is a wealth of information available through the performance tables, and the Department for Education’s Get Information About Schools service.

If you have specific inquiries that you wish to make – for example an investigation into why pupil numbers are decreasing in your school – then looking at data from other schools may help point towards a wider issue (eg if other schools are also seeing reduced numbers, then maybe birth-rate or migration is the cause), or it may be that other schools are seeing increases, in which case there may be a need to understand why other schools are attracting families.

6. Data is not just about attainment and progress

Attainment and progress are undoubtedly the most important sets of data to use in school governance. But they are not the only datasets. As well as the contextual data mentioned previously, there is data about attendance, exclusions, incidents in school, financial data, outcomes data, audit data, staffing and HR, and data about governance itself. 

These data all come together to give the overall view of the school or trust, and should be used in their entirety to evaluate and monitor teaching, curriculum, resource management, and governance.

7. Surveys are good data

As well as the data that is captured by the school on attainment and progress, and the other operational datasets mentioned in this article, another key source of data are surveys. When done properly, surveys are a really good source of information for governors.  

Regularly surveying the school community – pupils, parents/carers, staff, and governors will help governors to identify areas where quantitative data may not reveal issues, but that still need addressing.

Surveys, when done correctly, and which lead to demonstrable actions, are also excellent tools for engaging with the school community, and it is really important, and valuable, that people feel their views are heard and acted upon.

8. Use data for planning as well as for challenge

It’s natural to want to use data to look backwards, and assess what has happened. It’s as important to use data to plan for the future. This could be as simple as looking at one year group, and planning future years’ resources based on what you know about the cohort (eg high EAL, SEND, etc).  Or it could be more complicated – modelling different staffing scenario using available data to calculate costs vs impact, such as on teacher contact ratios.

Using available data will not give you your strategic direction, but it should help to inform it.

9. Beware the pitfalls of using data

When using data to support challenge and decision-making, there are certain things to be mindful of – things that you can and can’t do with data.

The classic example is that correlation does not equal causation – that just because two trends emerge at the same time, you cannot assume that there is a relationship. Good examples of this can be seen in this collection of spurious correlations.

Another common trap to fall into is (as mentioned before) putting too much emphasis on small numbers, especially when looking at trends.

Cherry picking data is often a problem, particularly when trying to reach a specific conclusion – governors should be mindful of the bigger data picture.

And finally, there is a danger of being over-reliant on data. Data is definitely a critical tool in good governance, but this must be alongside other functions, such as school visits, reviews, conversations with school leaders.

10. Many eyes see more than one

It would be easy to choose one governor or trustee to be ‘the data trustee’, and expect them to be well-versed in the school’s data, leading any data-related conversations on behalf of the board.

While it is sensible to have a lead governor, all governors should be familiar with the school’s data, and be able to ask probing questions. Governors, by their nature, come from different backgrounds, and will be able to look at the same data and reports through different lenses – seeing different things, and providing a different viewpoint on the data.

11. Don't overdo it

The final point in this list of top tips could well come under the pitfalls section, but it’s probably worth having its own point. Do not get bogged down in too much data – that’s not helpful for anyone – the teachers who may have to produce it, the senior leaders who have to present it, and the governors who have to act on it. 

It’s much better to be targeted when using data. Regular reporting of data should really be by exception only (though determining the criteria for exception is a challenge in itself). 

For other situations – a proportionate amount of data should be created / captured – everything that we do as governors should aim to minimise the the burden on our staff, so asking for unnecessary data is to be avoided.

Hopefully these tips are useful to boards out there.  For anyone who wants to know more about this, or would be interested in training or support around the use of data in school governance, please do feel free to register your details using the form on this page. Activity should be starting in early 2022, so if you do register, keep an eye on your emails.