From education to employment

College freedom from state control must include reducing the cost and burden of data collection

When the Programme for Coalition Government was published at the end of May it promised to ‘set colleges free from direct state control’, and last week the sector heard what this will mean in practice. The Minister for FE, John Hayes, announced that the best colleges wil l no longer be inspected by Ofsted and will be free to move money between adult-learner and employer budgets. This was warmly welcomed by college representative bodies such as the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the 157 Group, who have long argued that colleges should be free from constraints preventing them from providing the best possible learner experience.

These policies are a helpful step in the right direction towards freedom, but to make significant gains the vast quantities of data that colleges have to collect needs to be tackled. David Willetts understands this, and in November 2009 whilst shadow Minister for FE and Skills he described in his AoC national conference speech how “every college Principal I meet tells me they have literally dozens of staff whose job is to collect data for a multiplicity of regulators and funding bodies which is not needed for the good management of the college”.

Mr Willetts was right to put a spotlight on the volume and complexity of data demands for colleges. The rising number of management information staff and the high salaries they command reflects a regulatory environment in which the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) is complex to the point of becoming unmanageable. And it is not only ILR data which colleges have to collect and return. Whilst the Summary Statement of Activity will be scrapped, two new data collections, one at the start of the academic year for 16-18 recruitment and another at the end for employer fees, are planned in the next academic year.

The Pearson Research Institute held its Summer College Data Conference last week where the volume, complexity and cost of data collection was discussed. At the end of the conference 160 delegates representing 115 colleges used voting technology to consider whether they thought resources required to collect data would need to increase next year. More than 80% thought they would.

Let’s be clear, there have been many bureaucracy busting attempts to reduce approximately 200 ILR data fields now required for each enrolment. Yet as the previous government wanted to measure more and more enrolment and learner characteristics, the tendency has been to add new fields faster than removing existing ones. That is not to say there are not opportunities to significantly reduce the data collection burden immediately, which the government may wish to consider.

For example, colleges have to collect and return just as much data about learners not funded by the government as they do about funded learners. This is an increasing burden on colleges which is not shared by independent training providers, and could be removed. Another heavy data burden at present concerns the introduction of a Unique Learner Number (ULN) field in the ILR. Colleges are investing significant resources to collect and validate these ten digit numbers, yet hundreds of thousands of learners this year have not had ULNs assigned and 79% of delegates at the Summer College Data conference thought their learners did not understand what a ULN was.

Colleges are also being put under increasing pressure to not only collect and return more data, but to improve the quality of the data. Formal data standards have been introduced by the information authority to improve completeness and timeliness and recent Ofsted inspections have gone so far as to openly question the credibility of performance data in some cases.

There is no question that colleges have a responsibility to ensure that their data is of the highest quality, but the need for data standards is further evidence to suggest that the burden of collection is already too great. David Willetts said at the AoC conference in November 2009: “under our model, much of this can be swept away”. The sector should encourage and support this model of greater freedoms, putting more of the public funding into high quality educating and training as opposed to bureaucracy and bean counting.

Nick Linford is head of the Pearson Research Institute and author of The Hands-on Guide to Post-16 Performance and Data

Click here to view all voting results from the Summer College Data Conference

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