Northumberland Church of England Academy Trust
Northumberland Church of England Academy Trust (NCEA Trust) is a multi-academy trust (MAT) which, in its own words, "strives to provide an inclusive and diverse learning environment, underpinned by Christian values, for pupils aged 2-19."
Through its varied curriculum, NCEA Trust aims to develop well-rounded and skilled young people who aspire to lead full lives and understand the role they have to play in their local communities.
NCEA Trust currently looks after nine schools across South East Northumberland, the majority of which are in either Ashington or Morpeth.
Thanks to funding from the North of Tyne Combined Authority's Digital Growth and Innovation Programme (NTCA Digital), our team at the National Innovation Centre for Data was able to support NCEA Trust through a 10-day project.
Prior to engaging with the National Innovation Centre for Data, NCEA Trust used four different systems, including Google Sheets spreadsheets, to handle its budgeting, HR, and payroll data.
As NCEA Trust has over 589 staff members, with changes to staff happening on a daily basis, a significant amount of time was spent manually moving data from system to system - as no integration was in place at this time - and manually updating spreadsheets to share important data with key members of staff.
With these issues in mind, the goal of this project was to reduce the time spent on manual data entry and routine administrative tasks, increase efficiency, and improve consistency. This goal was then broken down into two specific objectives:
- Any piece of data related to a person who is employed by the Trust should only be entered once by HR into one system from which all other systems draw information.
- There should be one accurate source of information for any data that relates to a person who is employed by the Trust (i.e., HR and payroll data).
"NCEA came to us to understand how they could reduce time spent moving data between systems, and more effectively extract useful insights. We helped them to make use of existing functionality within their management information system to keep key spreadsheets updated automatically.
We then introduced NCEA staff to Power BI, empowering them to create interactive, centralised reports and fostering a culture of innovation within the team."
Fergus McClean, Data Scientist, NICD
This project was carried out in two phases. Phase one took place in January 2023 and was focussed on introducing NCEA Trust's staff to the live feed functionality in Arbor, the main management information system they use. The live feed function automatically updates Google Sheets that share important data with key members of staff, thereby eliminating the need to update them manually and freeing up valuable staff time.
Our team, led by data scientists Fergus McClean and Louise Braithwaite, also identified that this live feed functionality was not working for some sites across the MAT, and that authentication was also not working. With our guidance, NCEA Trust was able to resolve both of these issues by communicating directly with the Arbor team.
NCEA Trust also wanted to explore moving data automatically between Carval, its HR and payroll system, and Arbor. Our team helped by investigating the schema of the database that supports Carval and helped them create a back-up database that they can take forward themselves to use for development purposes.
Our team also helped NCEA Trust to identify mappings between Arbor and Carval. Due to the way that historical data is stored, however, it was determined that it would be too complex to enter new data from Arbor into the Carval database directly. This was a useful outcome of phase one of the project as the Trust discovered for certain that moving the data was not possible without Carval themselves providing integration.
Fortunately, the team from Carval have since advised NCEA Trust that they are looking into building integration with Arbor, so this is likely to be possible in the not-too-distant future.
"Thanks to guidance from the National Innovation Centre for Data's staff, we have and are about to change how we deliver live reports and data dashboards using Power BI.
We have also changed one of our technician staff's focus and created a semi-developer role to look not just at our HR systems, but at all of the systems we use, which we pay a lot of money for but currently don't get the best value and use out of.
Thanks to the National Innovation Centre for Data, we now have the tools and a clear route to move forward, and we will continue to implement these changes."
Roger Pearson, Network Manager , NCEA Trust
Phase two of the project, which took place from February to March 2023, was focussed on using Power BI and the Arbor-Power BI connector function to automatically build reports - including visualisations of staff and student data. Fergus and Louise also visited NCEA Trust at the Duke's Secondary School site in Ashington to deliver in-person Power BI training to a group of staff working in various different capacities.
NCEA Trust's team was able to quickly identify any issues with reports which, in turn, allowed our team to assist in resolving them quickly. It was decided that the Power BI platform will become a key part of the Trust's data strategy going forward.
Another valuable outcome of the project was that NCEA identified a need for a dedicated developer role within the organisation, to help undertake specialised project work and deliver valuable insights. This role will initially come from redefining the responsibilities of a current member of the NCEA Trust technical team, so that they can spend 50% of their time on special projects such as reporting.
Fostering a culture of innovation
Lastly, another key outcome of the project was establishing that any new software systems introduced by NCEA need to be fully assessed on their compatibility with existing systems and their durability to change.
At the final review session, it was also expressed that a culture of innovation would greatly benefit NCEA Trust into the future as the organisation continues to evolve and make increasing use of data to improve the quality of the service it can provide.
NCEA Trust hopes to continue making use of Power BI to empower staff to question current methods, try new things, and innovate.
With thanks to the North of Tyne Combined Authority Digital Growth and Innovation Programme (NTCA Digital) for funding this project. Find out more about NTCA Digital here.
To find out more about the Northumberland Church of England Academy Trust, visit their website.