Comment Blog 31 August, 2017

How live school workforce data would help

Reform’s forthcoming report on the school workforce, based on interviews with over forty experts (including current teachers and school leaders), has some detailed suggestions for improving the annual School Workforce Census. Beyond the valuable, achievable and short-term benefits the report highlights, the real long-term prize on offer is secure and accessible live workforce data in schools. This information would help make significant savings in school budgets, 70-80% of which are currently spent on staff. It could also help improve teaching quality, which has the single biggest influence on pupil outcomes. This is an area where even small improvements can have a big impact.

Live workforce data should be available to all staff that need it, and should be easy for them to use. Some of this data should also be visible to other people, such as governors, researchers and the Department for Education. This would be a massive time-saver, freeing staff from the costly burden of regular ‘censuses’, to do other more important things, like teach. It would also give each level of the school system new insights about crucial issues such as current staff vacancies, how many staff are required in future, and which types of staff are more likely to leave. It would also help us to explore relationships between teacher characteristics and pupil outcomes, for instance the mix of education and experience that makes the most effective computer science teachers.

Shifting from lag data to live data about what schools use and report, and where they advertise roles, will help inform hiring decisions and encourage workforce planning. These are both areas currently typified by a “lack of alternatives” and “market failures” according to many interviewees. We heard about the “cosy” relationships vendors in these two markets have with some schools, school groups, local authorities and even professional associations. Well-functioning, fair and cost-effective markets are vital for the key services that help schools manage their data and find new staff, for less money. It could be argued – and was by several interviewees – that this has not been the case in both areas for some time, with ramifications for school staff, budgets and ultimately pupils.

First, we believe the way schools manage their workforce data should be reformed. In time the Census should be replaced completely by linking directly to modern school Management Information Systems (MIS), reducing the workload for schools. The Department is already trialling a promising Data Exchange project that does this for the Pupil Census, suggesting this can be done for the Workforce Census too. At present, schools hold HR and workforce data in a range of formats and systems, update it periodically, then input it manually into censuses for the Department. Many schools don’t even know their own staff retention rates, with the Department largely blind to variations by region or subject. For nearly three decades the dominant provider of school MIS has been the market first-mover, Capita’s SIMS product, in use in over 80% of schools for at least the last six years, and possibly thirty. The Office of Fair Trading states that market ‘dominance’ can be presumed if an undertaking has a market share persistently above 50 per cent. The history of SIMS and attendant procurement practices are contested, as is the right balance between data for accountability purposes and in-school needs.

Second, when it comes to vacancy data, jobs are typically advertised on school websites, through for-profit providers such as TES, e-teach and others, or through the free TeachVac portal. Some Teaching School Alliances, regions and local authorities offer job boards too, but this varies hugely across the country, with many areas offered no such service. Currently 54 per cent of permanent roles are filled through such advertising and on average schools spend £1,200 per role via this method, with a total estimated cost of £56 million in 2015-16. To tackle this spend, the 2016 White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere pledged that the Department for Education would ‘create simple web tools that enable schools to advertise vacancies for free and a new national teacher vacancy website so that aspiring and current teachers can find posts quickly and easily’ including ‘part-time and job-share opportunities’. This ambition was reiterated in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, with a call for a “single jobs portal, like NHS Jobs, for schools to advertise vacancies in order to reduce costs and help them find the best teachers.” £350,000 was requested for this initiative by the Department last year, but progress appears slow and ownership unclear.

There is a long history with both areas, as successive ministers have unsuccessfully attempted to topple TES with Government-built alternatives, and new entrants to the MIS market have long-complained of SIMS’ dominance. Given the growing challenges facing the school workforce, Government should ensure there are dynamic, fair and competitive markets of providers in both areas. Six recommendations will help.

  1. As a quick-win, the Department should use the Data Exchange project to add a field for vacancies. This would improve the current situation, where national recruitment targets rely on flawed data that can be up to two years out of date.
  2. In-line with good procurement practice, regular, open and competitive tenders should take place for MIS and vacancy providers by schools, school groups and local authorities. The Government, or Competition and Markets Authority if necessary, should intervene where the market is failing to deliver value for money through fair competition.
  3. As in other markets such as bankingbroadband and energy, improved contracts are not always sufficient. Sometimes providers need to be compelled to enable easy switching, to avoid school ‘lock-in’ to any one provider, and to encourage fair competition.
  4. The Government should ensure that all services in these two areas are built using agreed, secure and open data standards, allowing for the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). This should feature interoperability of data between different systems and – given that it is all public money – the requirement for standard, real-time data to be provided to schools, school groups, regions and the Government. This would inform workforce decisions at each level of the system and help to achieve value for money. Statutory reporting requirements could be one lever to achieve this, as would re-invigorating work on the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF).
  5. Rather than build an in-house TES alternative itself, the Government could use its existing procurement framework to offer ‘concession contracts’, for suitable organisations to build and maintain such services. This could be trialled on a regional basis, to test and scale the best solution (more on this in our paper). Again, these contracts should be re-tendered regularly and openly. They would cost the taxpayer nothing as organisations would access the data (outlined above), to try to add value to users that they would pay for, and take on the risk if they do not.
  6. The Government should also work to stimulate the market for MIS and job vacancy services, building the knowledge and capacity of all schools, so that they expect more from service providers rather than only doing what they’ve done before. History shows that well-functioning markets don’t just happen, especially in public services, they need pro-active Government involvement. It could run innovation funds, challenge prizes and award schemes to stimulate both supply of and demand for better services. Debates about innovation, profit and risk should be aired openly.

As for schools themselves, there is much they can do. Moving to modern, usable systems that staff can interact with daily, will encourage a culture shift away from ‘data’ being an occasional and time-consuming task by a handful of specially-trained staff, to something than genuinely saves everybody time and supports them in their role. Live data democratisation will save staff time, helping them to do more with less. Some groups of schools are already exploring such approaches. However, to realise those benefits in the future requires leadership from the Government and schools now.