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Curse of the numbers game

Data-handling has put a huge financial strain on colleges, but major reforms are in the pipeline. Joe Clancy reports

They call it the spreadsheet from hell - a document so complex it took 300 man-hours to compile and complete.

Appropriately, it is accessed via a devil icon on the computer desktop. One mouse click on the red-horned motif and 59 pages of meticulously compiled facts and figures pop up.

The information gathered was requested last year by the Office for Standards in Education prior to its inspection of Chichester college, in West Sussex. It is just one among dozens of requests for statistics about college performance that the data management staff regularly have to deal with.

Chichester's principal. Richard Parker, can remember the time - until about a decade ago - when data collection was a job for a vice-principal working with an administrative assistant.

They would spend just a few days once a year perusing registers to compile the data needed for the college to function efficiently.

But the requests for more and more information from an increasing number of organisations about student numbers, retention figures and achievement, and to check if targets are being met, have changed all that.

Now, Dr Parker must employ 16 full-time staff to deal with data. Last year, there were no fewer than 40 external agencies to which data was supplied.

As well as national and local government offices, the Learning and Skills Council and inspection services, the list includes Connexions, the student loans company, 50 examination boards, employers and training companies.

They must also compile individualised learner records (ILRs) for every student and produce staff information records (SIRs), detailing age, qualifications and experience, for every lecturer employed.

Dr Parker says the cost of data management to his college is pound;350,000 per year, so it places a very heavy burden on college finances and resources.

"That amount is the direct cost of the people we specifically employ in data management. It does not include the indirect cost of the time teachers spend on collecting data," he says.

That is why data is one of the six key items on the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change - alongside skills, quality, funding, efficiency and reputation.

David Russell, the LSC's director of resources who is leading the data theme, calculated that basic changes to data collection could save colleges pound;100 million.

"That is enough to fund 15,000 students across the country," he says.

"Enough to fill five sixth-form colleges or three general FEcolleges."

The savings could be "at least doubled", he insists, if the funding system were simplified. And that is what another item on the agenda for change sets out to do.

Mr Russell says college principals raised the issue of data with the LSC last summer. "They told us that simplifying data collection and management information systems would help them enormously in reducing bureaucracy."

"That's why we are talking about having a different relationship with colleges, built on partnership, joint working and trust.

"If we can achieve that, we can do away with huge amounts of data that we routinely collect. We have sought to reduce the data burden on colleges by cutting back on the requests we make. But while we reduce our demands, new requests come in all the time."

He cites the introduction last year of education maintenance allowances (EMAs), and new commitments from Jobcentre Plus, learner support, and the European Social Fund, as extra data burdens.

"These bodies make similar demands on colleges for information," he says.

"It requires colleges to have very good management information systems and colleges are geared up for this."

He and his task group are looking into developing a system whereby colleges' data could be collected by external organisations without involving college staff.

"We want to get all the organisations together, to work with us and co-operate, so we collect once and use many times," he says. "We want to be able to tap into this big electronic record. If we can agree a common framework, the LSC can access colleges' management information systems, and colleges won't be asked to fill in big data returns.

He believes more work needs to be done to have standard definitions for the sector.

"There are some definitions of 16 to 18-year-olds that include 21-year-olds," he says. "It's bonkers. Everybody is inventing their own systems."

The task group is also lookinginto setting up a central registration authority, where student records could be seamlessly passed from school to college to Connexions to university.

"Schools have a wealth of data about every student, their Sats scores and added value, but it disappears when they leave school, and colleges must start all over again," he says. There is the potential to "cut out a huge amount of bureaucracy at a stroke".

As Dr Parker says: "Information is the lifeblood of colleges, but we have created a monstrous machine. Now there is a real will to reduce it."

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