Clean sweep

With a new and very academic year fast approaching, educators are thinking about how best to tidy up their data. And with remote working an ever-bigger part of the solution, how can schools and colleges maintain and update their data safely? Steve Wright asks the experts

The panel

Rich Harley CEO, ScholarPack school management software
Fredrik Forslund VP enterprise and cloud erasure solutions, Blancco secure data software erasure
Christophe Landuré head of development, further and higher education software, Capita
Philippa Wilding director of customer engagement, school software, Capita
Murray Morrison founder, Tassomai online learning programme
Kevin Prone head of services, Nowcomm IT solutions
Steve Cox chief evangelist, IRIS Software Group

Q. Why is the data cleansing process so important for education providers?

RH: When you’ve already got a lot on your plate, data cleansing may feel like a low-priority task. In reality, data cleansing is just about keeping your data up to date.

Trying to do anything in your school with incorrect data is going to make the process longer. Conversely, when census time rolls around, if your data is being updated throughout the year via your MIS, your census return can be completed in 30 minutes. At best, having the wrong information can be time-consuming; at worst, it could be potentially dangerous – for example, in the case of medical records (such as allergies) not being up to date.

Try to take a whole-school approach to data cleansing, and ensure that every piece of data you store has an associated plan for keeping it up to date. This might take a couple of formats:

  • ad hoc updating, where all staff can keep school and pupil information up to date via the management information system (MIS) and staff permissions to access certain data can be set accordingly to maintain security;
  • and parent information forms, a useful but often time-consuming exercise.

Completing these once a year will allow your office staff to do a full data check in one go.

You could also speed this up by merging existing data into the form, and only asking parents to flag any necessary changes. Similarly, some MIS providers now offer apps for parents to allow them to quickly see and update their own details.

FF: To truly understand the importance of data cleansing, we must first define it. The official industry term is ‘data sanitisation’. As data sanitisation specialists, we’re tasked with removing data from devices permanently, so that it’s impossible to recover.

The recent cultural shift towards working from home because of the pandemic, has seen a huge increase in sensitive data being transferred between different IT assets and new locations. Keeping a tab on all IT assets is crucial, and it’s important to recognise the risk associated with leaving this data dormant on devices. This is where a data sanitisation policy comes into play.

Keeping a tab on all IT assets is crucial, and it’s important to recognise the risk associated with leaving this data dormant on devices – Fredrik Forslund

To ensure compliance, education providers should insist on an audit trail to prove what has been completed, according to standards and requirements. Education providers handle a lot of sensitive information on their staff, students, and the institutions themselves. As part of that responsibility, strict data retention policies are crucial. Failing that responsibility can mean breaching privacy laws, resulting in steep consequences, both financial and reputational.

CL: Further and higher education providers must adhere to GDPR, and must clearly identify the purposes for holding the data that they have. Cleaning the student data within their systems is key to ensuring that personal data is adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary. The Information Commissioner’s Office can issue penalty notices of up to £500,000 for serious breaches.

PW: Chiefly, data management is essential for safeguarding and ensuring legal compliance. All schools must comply with GDPR regulations specifying that sensitive data is only provided to the intended recipients. Failure to comply could result in a serious incident, reputational damage and/or financial penalties. Another implication of incorrect, incomplete, inaccurate data can be financial, in that the institution may miss out on possible funding – for post-16 education, for example.

MM: School leaders and students are currently making crucial decisions for lesson plans, student intervention, catch-up schemes and distribution of resources – and doing so with limited visibility on their students. Not only will they have seen very little of those most in need of support during the past few months, but contact time will likely be less than they would wish in the new term.
For school resources, including teacher time, to be deployed in the best interests of those students most in need, the quality, volume and validity of data will become paramount.

KP: Data cleansing should focus on delivering effective performance, preferably through a standards-based, formal process. A good start would be to incorporate ISO 9001 and 8000 certification.
Data requires curation: it ages and it can degrade in quality. At an individual level, I may change name or address, and organisations must keep this data up to date to meet my expectations. Therefore, retaining old data is inefficient, and again when thinking about an individual’s data, aged and inaccurate data could possibly be irritating, potentially offensive or even a potential risk to a person.

At a technology level, data storage devices are not always perfect and data can get corrupted (by a hard disk failure, for example). Human error is also possible: if I am working with the data in some form of administration role or activity, I may accidentally overwrite correct data with incorrect data. Data is increasingly valuable to drive operational efficiencies, maintain good customer relationships and to build insights that can extend and enhance the relationship with the customer. These are some of the key areas why a comprehensive and consistent data cleansing process is essential for all organisations.

SC: While data requirements have been relaxed in the short-term, this is just the calm before the storm as the fallout from coronavirus is assessed. The problem is that, while requirements are relaxed, staff could be cutting corners on data entry. And reporting is only as good as the data that is entered – thus, there is a potential data cleansing process looming on the horizon for most education providers.

Further, in the coming year there will be far larger data requirements placed on trusts and schools. With significant changes to pension rates, funding and the level of required reporting expected, how schools obtain and manage financial, pupil and staff data is now more crucial than ever. And yet, the recent Kreston Academies Benchmark Report found that most schools and trusts currently operate on the minimum requirement.

data cleansing
Image source: Freepik

Q. What sorts of tools, systems and solutions out there best allow education institutions to manage and clean their data?

CL: There is a range of specialised data cleansing tools on the market, which may help institutions correct inaccuracies and duplicate records. However, the student record systems vendors are best placed to provide solutions that will iterate through all record links and be aware of complex data integration rules within the database.

For example, the Personal Data Erasure tool in our MIS provides options to delete students who applied for courses but subsequently changed their minds and never turned up at the institution. The same feature also deals with people who applied for jobs but were not successful. It also provides a log of all external documents (learning agreement, medical notes etcetera), linked to those students which can be cleaned up subsequently by the IT team.

RH: The best method for storing, sorting and tracking your data is a modern management information system (MIS). The latest systems now use intelligent software to help you keep your data up to date, by alerting you to any gaps or duplications – and by allowing you to bulk-update or bulk-delete your data, thus saving time.

FF: Fortunately, there are options to manage and clean data to a high standard. Also, best practices offer data-erasure software for all sorts of data-storing assets, from mobile devices and tablets to SSD drives and data centres. The key here is to be able to process all assets at any location, wherever your sensitive data may sit at any given time.

Given the recent lockdown measures, this can be a challenging process but, as long as all assets are tracked and have a sanitisation process in place, chances of a data leak are minimised. Maintain a certified audit trail and you’ll be in charge of the process, able to prove compliance and avoid regulatory hassle.

Another key priority for many education institutions is sustainability. With software-based best practice for data erasure, there is no need to physically destroy IT assets just to protect the data on them. Today we are facing a global e-waste problem, and the destruction of IT assets to avoid data leaks is both damaging and unnecessary. If data sanitisation is used instead, damage to the environment is mitigated.

KP: Educational institutions should build a data governance strategy that considers people, processes and technology. There are many products on the market, and it is important to make any selection based on an educational institution’s specific requirements. What data are we looking to clean? Where is it stored? How often will it need to be reviewed?

Educational institutions should build a data governance strategy that considers people, processes and technology – Kevin Prone

Each data set presents different challenges: does it age quickly? Is it typically incomplete? Do we hold significant volumes of duplicate data that is expensive to manage? Do we need to comply with regulations and hold the data for a specific or minimum period of time? Who is going to manage and audit the data? As we define, document and build processes for the data sets, quality management systems and recognised frameworks (such as ISO 8000) can assist. This approach can be used to define not only the functional requirements of any tools, systems and solutions to best allow education institutions to clean their data, but also the implementation and conformance model to be adopted and configured for each tool.

SC: Though the MIS remains one of the most critical pieces within a trust’s architecture, by itself it cannot manage or run a school. Creating real efficiencies and one single, accurate picture of truth across a trust requires countless other pieces of software. Schools and trusts must be sure that they have all the right elements in their infrastructure to support them as we move into the next ‘normal’. These include:

  • Engagement: trusts and schools need to ensure that they can communicate more frequently than ever with parents, in order to obtain the required data and provide guidance. Software such as ParentMail and PS Connect by IRIS can create a two-way conversation with new parents, enabling schools and trusts to increase engagement and obtain the necessary data.
  • Analytics and reporting: as analytics and reporting become a primary requirement, there will be a significant amount of crossover in the data sources required to produce accurate, meaningful and precise reports across multiple data sets. Schools and trusts must ensure that their data sets are clean in order to deliver the most accurate results without the need for data manipulation for better decision-making.
  • Asset management: asset data, including new equipment being loaned out and key compliance dates, which sits aside critical day-to-day student record data, can ultimately help trusts remain compliant. Trusts have a legal responsibility for all the people in their care, and so are liable if anything goes wrong with equipment or other assets.
data cleansing
Image source: Freepik

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting remote working and learning, impacted data management for education institutions?

CL: The pandemic is having a profound impact on exams management and enrolment processes. In previous years, admin staff and teachers would schedule a range of interviews, and talk to students face-to-face, in order to update their records and provide advice. Further and higher education providers have had to transform existing processes to take place online, requiring support systems to be updated to allow students to enter their details, submit evidence and coursework, and access a wider range of payment options.

The pandemic is having a profound impact on exams management and enrolment processes – Christophe Landuré

PW: There have been requirements for providers to record attendance and other types of data, which has differed from the usual information that they previously collected daily. In addition, providers have had to collect, moderate and submit estimated exam entries, which required remote access to an MIS system from home for some staff. Furthermore, providers have needed to facilitate regular communication between parents and carers throughout lockdown.

RH: The biggest impact has been a realisation, for most schools, that on-site systems (MIS and others) are just not an option anymore. With lockdown forcing many school leaders to work from home, those already using cloud-hosted systems have found it quicker and easier to adapt to remote working.
Leaders needed instant access to critical information (student, parent and staff details), as well as an ability to seamlessly communicate with specific groups of students (e.g. children of key workers, pupils eligible for free school meals, or vulnerable groups): getting the right information out to the right people was crucial.

Cloud-hosted systems have allowed school leaders to access their MIS – to use, change and input data, and to keep up as the situation evolved, no matter where they were. Furthermore, cloud systems support the ability to roll out system updates at the click of a button. As such, we were able to launch new features and functionalities in line with changing government guidance, to help schools get through the pandemic. Server-based, or on-site systems will have needed manual updates here – which just wasn’t possible in lockdown.

FF: In this post-COVID world, educational institutions must maintain a razor-sharp focus on data management processes for remote management. Organisations must find a way of removing sensitive data remotely, instead of the usual route of running a process on site or on campus.

Achieving the highest level of security at the same time as streamlining operational efficiency during this ‘new normal’ has become a mantra for many. Automate data processes where possible, and look at software solutions that can be deployed remotely. By remotely controlling data management and sanitisation processes, devices will be clean and secure.

In this post-COVID world, educational institutions must maintain a razor-sharp focus on data management processes for remote management – Fredrik Forslund

MM: What I have been hearing among teachers and school leaders is that school closures have, in some cases, greatly increased the range and volume of data they hold on students – for whom they are thus able to make good decisions. Many students, however, are simply missing. With little or no communication, home learning or interactivity, the worry is that these students are overwhelmingly the ones for whom good data is most needed.

[Missing] students are overwhelmingly the ones for whom good data is most needed – Murray Morrison

KP: I would imagine that each institution has been impacted differently, depending on the different data management tools they have in place. However, a correctly defined data management policy, combined with a robust data security and cybersecurity policy, should produce little or no impact.

data cleansing
Image source: Freepik

Q. And what might some of the longer-term implications be, as/if we transition to more of a ‘blended learning’ landscape?

CL: This questions fundamentally the concept of a classroom, with its limited numbers of students, monitored attendance, and careful timetabling of activities. There’s no limit to the number of people who can connect online to follow a lesson – it can be recorded and played back at will. Students can progress at their own pace through the curriculum. So, in the longer term, the whole structures of teaching and of building estates are at stake.

… the whole structures of teaching and of building estates are at stake – Christophe Landuré

PW: It’s vital to have cloud-based, flexible solutions, to allow for remote use without complex setup and maintenance. There’s also a need for improved internet capacity, to cope with the increased traffic, along with more flexible ways of capturing and storing student assessment – whether these be photographic or sound files, or online tests linked directly to MIS assessment systems. This move towards a blended learning landscape will only succeed if there is an investment of time for the training of leaders and teaching staff in how to use online learning tools effectively.

This move towards a blended learning landscape will only succeed if there is an investment of time for the training of leaders and teaching staff in how to use online learning tools effectively – Philippa Wilding

RH: A priority will be to ensure that *all* families in the community are able to take advantage of a blended learning approach. Many households could struggle to provide the home learning equipment required – so greater support will be needed here, to make sure that some groups don’t fall behind.

A priority will be to ensure that *all* families in the community are able to take advantage of a blended learning approach – Rich Harley

FF: The way education providers handle data is changing in tandem with the new ‘blended learning’ landscape. For those responsible for keeping data storage clean and secure, it’s important to recognise exactly where your data is distributed and stored. Today, we are dealing with sensitive data on-site, at home and in the cloud, and each of these requires its own data management approach.

MM: Blended learning will, I believe, greatly ameliorate the problems we’ve discussed above – provided that schools are able to make decisions and adapt their provision without their hands tied. Direct contact with students will allow teachers to fill in the gaps from those students who have been absent through lockdown. The quicker the data holes can be filled, the quicker schools will be able to focus their attention where it’s needed most.

If it’s clear that some students are thriving in the distance-learning model, while others stall, then perhaps a balance can be found in which all students can make academic progress.

SC: As ownership of data becomes more scrutinised in the coming months, allowing the ‘data owner’ to update and ‘own’ their data will become even more vital. Crucially, this will be a benefit for schools’ and trusts’ finance offices, as it puts the power and ownership of data back with the teachers and staff.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the absolute necessity for schools and trusts to be prepared to switch strategies quickly. However, this relies on having the right information instantly – which staff are high-risk, which work part-time, and what additional skills they can bring to the table. By moving to a self-service data input, schools can be sure that they will have the most accurate and up to date information when needing to implement contingency plans quickly and effectively.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the absolute necessity for schools and trusts to be prepared to switch strategies quickly – Steve Cox

data cleansing
Image source: Freepik

Q. What tips and tricks can help IT leaders to tidy up their Management Information Systems (MIS)?

CL: IT leaders require a powerful reporting toolset in order to understand fully their data health, as well as network and document management systems to ensure a best possible overview of the myriad individual files linked to personal database records. They should demand high standards of services from third-party vendors supplying their IT systems, particularly in terms of performance and data management tools.

PW: I would recommend a good knowledge of, and training in, prebuilt utilities; using reports to highlight possible missing or incorrect information, such as: email addresses; error trapping; verification and validation checks on data entry, such as for census returns; and deletion or archiving of old data, for safeguarding, GDPR compliance and performance reasons.

RH: The best advice is a ‘little and often’ approach, to ensure a rolling programme of updates and improvements. Create a plan to make sure that every piece of data you store has an associated plan for keeping it up to date. That way, your data sets are all being updated systematically, through the work you do every day – rather than having to allocate a chunk of time to do it all in one go. You might also want to plan in time to periodically spot-check, and edit or delete duplicate data sets. This will also help to ensure that your census return is completed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

FF: Diligence is the order of the day. A comprehensive and up to date data inventory is the only way to ensure that all data is tracked and kept secure. Think of it like data ‘housekeeping’: a task that must be consistently reassessed as ways of working continue to change. Consistency is key to avoiding losing control of the data life cycle. One tip would be to implement a data retention period, at the end of which all redundant, obsolete or trivial (ROT) data is sanitised securely. 

KP: Always start with people, processes and technology, and review all three points of the triangle. At Nowcomm, we use this holistic approach for the design and delivery of any system or service.
Agree formalised best practice models, adopt standards and legislation, or use sections of standard-based models. Make sure that all your employees understand, and are committed to, your institution’s own standard model – and regularly review these models, looking for ways to further improve the existing system.

Further reading

ISO 9001 certification

ISO 8000 certification

You might also like: Ultimate guide to blended learning


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