As leadership pour over first term figures how, asks FEA’s Dr Ian Hadfield, do we spot the student experience hidden in the numbers?

Last week the MIS data gurus finalised the 2015/16 data, having optimised both Funding and Achievements.

The two big questions: “have we reached the funding allocation?” and “what’s the bottom line Achievement Rate?” have been answered. All that's left is to determine if it’s good news or bad.

But, for the data, it’s not over yet. Curriculum Managers are grappling with the scrutiny of their Self-Assessment reports, in validation panels with the Senior Team. In these meetings it’s often all about the data, with performance compared to National Averages or previous years. The big question here is: “What can I do to improve the data?”

Even the best MIS guru can only do so much. The learners are gone. The quality of their experience is history. Their grades are a fact.

The answer is to use the data to walk in the learner’s shoes; to infer pinch points, learn useful lessons and to make significant changes.

Consider these five examples:

1. The first Half Term

It’s half term this week and the first landmark in the academic year. If learners have stayed this far they usually start to count for funding and against the achievement data.

Looking back to last year:

  • How many learners didn’t make it past the first half term?
  • Are there large variations between departments?
  • In departments with a high dropout rate are the achievement rates also high?

If we’re focussed on learners rather than data then the aim is giving them every opportunity to succeed. If learners are struggling we need to find the right course for them - rather than lose them

2. The balance between retention and pass rate

When the achievement rate is broken down into retention and pass rate, it tells a story. In some cases, retention is very high and achievement much lower, in others it’s reversed.

Are learners receiving the support they need to keep them engaged?

  • Who chases learners when they stop attending?
  • Are assessment calendars evenly spread to prevent assessment overload?
  • Are staff too understanding - so learners stay but fail to achieve?

Every learner counts in the data, so getting one extra learner to pass in every class of 20 would be a 5% increase in the achievement rates.

3. Progression from Year to Year

Many Colleges talk about progression from Level 1 through HE.

Does the data bear this out, or do learners come back to the same level?

  • Are there barriers between Level 2 and 3 such as English or Maths?
  • Are there other factors which impede progressions, such as behaviour?

Analysis of progression can provide a real insight into who is accepted onto a course and why. Keeping the learners we have is far easier than recruiting from scratch.

4. Value Added

Level 3 value added has not always been treated with as much respect as achievement rates. The new performance management of colleges is likely to change that

  • If all learners achieve the lowest grade, is the focus really on the achievement rate?
  • Is there variation between teachers?
  • Are target grades set too low?

In the best Colleges, learners are set demanding but realistic targets and motivated to achieve the highest grades they possibly can.

5. Maths and English

The challenges for most General FE Colleges are significant. With the 16 to 18 age population typically split equally between levels 1, 2 and 3, the volume of Maths and English typically covers a third of the aims studied.

How are English and Maths timetabled?

  • Are they studying with their peers?
  • What levels of integration with the main course are possible?
  • Are there attendance hot spots?

The key, and also the biggest challenge, is motivation. Inspirational teaching and rewards trump disciplinary action every time.

What’s next?

The achievement rate is not a number - it’s about real learners.

Every number on the bottom line represents a learner’s efforts. If the number is lower it’s because we lost them before they started to count, and the consequence is reduced funding. If it’s higher it is because more progressed or we engaged with them early.

Every number on the top line is an achievement. The gap between top and bottom are the losses along the way. Even if the gap is small and the rate is high, did they achieve the highest grade they could?

FE has always been a place for people to come and re-engage with education, a stepping stone to a better future. Doing the best for every learner that walks through the door will always result in the best outcomes.

FEA’s Dr Ian Hadfield has 25 years’ FE experience in quality assurance and improvement, MIS and planning.

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