Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Dear graduates, school data management is the best career you've never heard of.

Everyone has been taught, so everyone knows that teaching is a viable career choice. Schemes like Teach First and school-led initial teacher training programmes mean that there are more ways than ever to train. So if you want to be a teacher, and you are capable, there's a good chance you'll get to be one.

However, speak to any head and they'll tell you that they need more than great teachers. All kinds of non-teaching roles also contribute to a school's success. And in the world that I work in, the key person is the data manager. It's a sometimes unheralded, but always pivotal, position.

You can't be an outstanding school without being on top of your data. But where do you go to find a great data manager? It's a question that's regularly asked in the country's secondary schools, since nearly all of them employ at least one data person. And the reason they need to ask it is because it's devilishly hard to find them.

There are lots of reasons for this supply/demand imbalance:
  1. Graduates don't know the job exists. You won't find any evidence of the role at careers fairs. So graduates don't consider it as a viable pathway. Most people fall into it by accident - they stumble across an ad, or they hear about the role from a savvy school-based acquaintance who spots their relevant skills (numeracy, IT, spreadsheet wizardry etc) and converts them to the cause.
  2. Schools are not always well placed to train data managers. Most schools only have one data manager, so there's rarely a more experienced colleague around to pass on their accumulated wisdom. Data managers may be line managed by either a school senior leader (the assessment co-ordinator, for example), the Head, the Finance & Resources Director or the IT manager. This means that there's a high chance that their boss doesn't know how to do the job in detail. That's entirely understandable given the other things these people do - but it does make training tricky.
  3. There is no relevant accreditation or induction of any sort. I am not aware of any formal data manager qualification. That's a problem that you don't find in other professions where practitioners may have a unique skillset within their organisation. For example, before they go "in-house", lawyers and accountants go through a slick training process via a large employer or a university to turn their raw talent into proper expertise.
  4. Prospective data managers can be put off by the misguided perception that there is a lack of career progression. Many data managers I've met have expressed a concern about how to move onwards and upwards in the data manager world. After all, if you're the only person with your skillset in the school, you can't really aspire to a more senior position within that school. But I think there are loads of great things that data management can lead to... and so below I'll give some options.
Points 1-3 are structural problems with education that I've discussed before, and my team spends quite a bit of time thinking about how ARK can help to solve them. For example, we're building a team of great central data people who support our schools, and in some cases actually do the job of a data manager on behalf of our schools. In the latter case, the school buys into a service from our skilled team, rather than relying on a single individual based at the school to do the job. Our hypothesis is that this is cheaper (because the school only pays for the number of days they need) and better (because the service is provided by a well-trained team with a range of specialisms). But it's early days, and there's loads we need to do to improve things further.

Point 4 stems from a lack of understanding of the richness of the broader education data sector, and also of the transferability of the underlying skills. Here are just some of the things you could do with a data management background:
    • Move to a different education data role. There are way more relevant roles than you might imagine. This very useful blog lists 14 UK SIS providers - and they all need school data skills. Most local authorities have data teams, usually containing people with a school data manager background. Data is huge in higher ed. Edtech more generally values people who understand school data. You could create your own edtech startup. I have a pretty cool job - and I'd probably be better at it if I'd been a data manager at one point. I could go on.
    • Move to a different data / analytics role in a different sector. Data is a huge growth area. There aren't enough people with good data skills. So if you want to move to another sector, with a bit of CV finessing you'll be very well placed. For example, our data people are starting to use Tableau - an awesome data visualisation tool. Try googling jobs for people with experience of working with Tableau. There are more and more of them every week, and they pay well. So school data is a great entry-level route into data more generally.
    • Move to a different school. Increasingly, you can progress just by moving to a different school or academy group. I've met data managers who cover two or more schools within a Multi Academy Trust. Academy groups also now have people covering lots of schools called things like "Director of Data". Bigger schools can have 2+ data people. And you could use the skills anywhere in the country. Career progression doesn't have to mean more money - it could involve the opportunity to use your skills in a different part of the country where you'd be happier.
So if you're smart, and struggling to find your calling, and you like numbers / spreadsheets / databases / technology, you should look seriously at a career as a data manager. And if this tempts you as a career option, but you're not sure what to do next, do get in touch for a chat (twitter is a good way of contacting me). One of our team would be glad to meet up with you to discuss the sector in more detail...


  1. Fantastic post - I will share widely! My Data Manager journey started in a brand new role back in 2009, when the data 'thing' was just taking off. I worked my way up to managing a data team, then spread across the growing federation to become an Academy Trust Data Manager with strategic duties too. Now I am the lead data consultant with SISRA and get to help thousands of people to make better use of their data. I also manage a large team of ex-Data Managers who travel the country training schools, exhibiting at conferences and getting involved in lots of different things. We are working on a Data Manager accreditation to help solve some of the issues you identified in your post. We think it's going to really help staff up-skill and increase job satisfaction. Keep doing what you're doing, and feel free to get in touch anytime!

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