Big data is our friend – here’s how it can help level the playing field in education

Embracing big data to improve children’s attainment outcomes

This summer saw the snazzily-named General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) programme launch delayed amid grumblings from GPs and MPs about a lack of engagement with the public and security issues. The programme, which aims to improve the process by which data is collected from GP surgeries, will now sit in limbo until a variety of key tests are met.  While it’s only right that any initiative which has access to some of the most sensitive information that can held on an individual jumps through the necessary hoops, surely nobody can question the validity of the GPDPR’s aim? It’s undeniable that patient data from general practices has contributed extensively to the enhancement of healthcare services for many years, so anything that improves access to this data is welcome. 

Big data has numerous purposes for wider public benefit

This data is used for numerous purposes, all with wider public benefit in mind; such as planning, policy development, research into disease, public health matters, commissioning and of course now, how to tackle COVID-19. I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry and it’s clear to me how integral access to large pools of anonymised data are in progressing healthcare in a way that benefits us all. I believe we now need to start adopting this approach in education. I currently work for a leading edtech company, and I am delighted that we were one of the founding members of the Edtech Evidence Group (EEG.)

As more and more schools start to integrate edtech into their everyday teaching, a wealth of data is being created that can help us better understand how children learn and how to improve their educational outcomes

One of the EEG’s core aims is to promote high quality evidence gathering within our member organisations, and the education sector more widely. As more and more schools start to integrate edtech into their everyday teaching, a wealth of data is being created that can help us better understand how children learn and how to improve their educational outcomes. Going forward, we need to examine how we can harness this data for the benefit of everyone, just as we already do in healthcare.

The more you know about a student’s progress, the more you can help them

Right now, schools are restricted in the information they can provide on where a child is on their educational journey. You may know if your child is at the top or bottom of their class but contextualising their achievement is restrained by the limited number of students they can be compared to in their year group. We know that a year is a long time when you are young and the age gap between the oldest and youngest children in a year group can make a big difference to their attainment levels; in fact, summer-born children are permitted by the government to delay starting school until the September after their 5th birthday – a full year after they could have first started school.

There’s evidence that, on average, the oldest children in a class will outperform the others. This attainment gap between summer-born children and their older contemporaries tends to steadily narrow during their early education, but it has been shown to remain significant even at the end of primary school. This adds currency to the idea that, to get a meaningful insight into your child’s educational accomplishment, you need to be able to compare them to others with very similar birthdays, not just ones of roughly the same age who live in the same area. One of the key benefits of the assessments at my previous company, GL Assessment, was standardised age scores, which put a 9 year old 0 months on a level playing field with a 9 year old 11 months, for example.

Better use of data could help those with SEND or those for who English is a second language

Age is just one factor that could be analysed if there was a large enough pot of data to work with. The ability to compare the progress of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to others with similar needs could be fantastically helpful in ensuring they are getting the support they need; especially as there will likely be a small number of others to compare them with within their own educational setting. Wider comparisons could also help better contextualise the progress of children for whom English is their second language or those who are in receipt of free school meals, the opportunities are endless.

When it comes to improving outcomes for individuals, big data is our friend. It’s only when we have a true picture of how a child is doing in comparison to others that are similar to them that any issues can be addressed in order to ensure they can reach their full potential.

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