Quarkside

01/05/2012

Party for Education Standards

Filed under: Education,Process,Standards — lenand @ 12:14 pm
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Business Data Architecture

This is the new Business Data Architecture from the Education, Skills and Children’s Services (ESCS) system, published by the Information Standards Board (ISB). It is more than a year since Quarkside reported better relations with the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF) parallel standards. The good news is that there have been changes as a result of better communications. It appears to show a better understanding of the  processes that operate within schools.

It may only seem to be a small change from ‘Stakeholder’ to ‘Party’.  But it make more practical sense.  Most people in school administration do not consider themselves as stakeholders, whereas they all like a party.  It must have been a brave change, owing to the enormous number of places the word had to be replaced in the Standard, which has now grown to 246 pages.

Give them a round of applause for perseverance over the years.

 

 

 

11/03/2011

SIF and DfE kiss and make up

Filed under: Education,Politics,Standards — lenand @ 9:36 am
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The spat between the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association and the Department for Education started last August with a flawed consultant’s report to DfE.  The riposte from the SIF Association showed concern about “the numerous inaccuracies in the published review” was sent in September. There was no satisfactory response by the time of the November SIF Conference.

The demise of Becta can’t have assisted the proceedings, but it has taken another four months to get any public form of rapprochement.

“The DfE acknowledges and values the work done by the SIF community and others in the UK. The DfE will continue to support the work of the SIF Association by sharing knowledge and advice through the Technical Support Service for the Information Standards Board (ISB), the Department’s Chief Information Officer Group and the Data and Statistics Division.”

The ISB now seems to be the Government’s hub of activity in this area.  They have done some sterling work on a model for all sectors of education.  It means migrating to a shared vocabulary – all good standards stuff.  So the SIF Association have returned the compliment:

“The SIF Association recognises and values the work that has been done by DfE and the ISB in producing a Business Data Architecture model suitable for use across the ESCS. The Association also accepts the long term vision and direction of the Business Data Architecture and has committed itself to work alongside the ISB in the development of new data items.”

Whether it all leads to greater efficiency in education administration, only time will tell whether it is a marriage made in heaven.

07/01/2011

PASC 5: Condemn bureaucracy in Education

Filed under: Education,Governance,People,Politics,Process,Technology — lenand @ 9:51 am
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The fifth of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) 12 questions, asks:

5. What role should IT play in a ‘post-bureaucratic age’?

Unfortunately, IT is correctly associated with bureaucracy by front-line staff. Computerised forms, often laboriously filled in from paper copies, are seen as the problem, not the solution. Data should be captured automatically in the usual line of business. For example, social workers should not be required to file so many written reports. Voice recording, whilst with clients, should be sufficient. Automatic transcription should be routinely performed off-line. Handwriting recognition with smart pens can collect forms data. IT should not add to the workload, it should reduce it. More use should be made of electronic credentials and personal data stores.

There is a huge bureaucratic structure to support data collection in schools and colleges. £billions administrator effort is spent collecting data for records and statistics, diverted from the education budget. Some supplier research on the cost of administration (as a proportion of income) in the college sector is as follows:

  • Administration Expenditure: £1.352 billion
  • Teaching Expenditure:  £4.667 billion
  • No of colleges: 345
  • Max %Admin: 61% [admin/teaching X 100]
  • Min %Admin: 10%
  • Average %Admin: 29%
  • Median %Admin: 29%
  • No with >40%Admin:  49
  • No with <20%Admin:  42

With six times factor between the lowest and highest, there must be room for efficiency gains by effective use of IT. Eliminating duplicate entry and automating links between incompatible systems should be a high priority for the nation.

An even larger set of administration exists in the school sector, for example the recording of children’s attendance at school. There is a huge bureaucratic structure to support it. Schools expend huge amounts of teacher and administrator effort collecting data for statisticians – not just teaching.

Schools in the UK process the information about 9 million children on a daily basis. The total volume is hardly noticed as it is performed in about 27,000 independent, self-contained locations. This is not just by the 400,000 teachers, but also by up to 90,000 administration staff and assistants. A school is typically involved in the operation of 10 different systems with records of attendance, achievements, school meals, libraries, parental addresses etc. Grossing up, there are about operational 250,000 systems. Much of the data is shared, within a school, across schools, up to local authorities and to the Department for Education (DfE). They share childrens’ names, addresses, dates of birth, nationality, parents’ names, qualifications etc.

And yet, although this cries out for standards, the DfE does not support the only practical way forward provided by the SIF Association.  This is a collaboration between educationalists and all the main suppliers of school administration systems. SIF is designed to provide complete interoperability between disparate systems.  It is an open standard supported by certified commercial software.

14/12/2010

SRP: DfE delays obscured

Filed under: Education,Governance,Policy,Politics — lenand @ 12:29 pm
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Is DfE playing games with reporting on their Structural Reform Plan?  Just let somebody else compare the DfE Baseline from July with their Progress Reports from October and November.

Here are three Quarks

1. Avoidance of finishing tasks

The baseline plan has 41 Actions and 14 milestones.  One can observe that 22, more than half of the actions have no end date.  How very convenient for bureaucrats: job is done when they start – there were no promises to finish.  Can you imagine this state of affairs in a private sector plan?  No.  It is is a recipe for sucking up resources without control or scrutiny.  There are now 30 actions considered to be started and, presumably, ongoing.  Most of these have don’t even have an end-date.

Can you imagine a teacher starting a unit of the curriculum without some concern about when it is due to finish?  They’d be sacked.

2. Avoiding previous months delays

The October report had 3 missed deadlines.  They were sort of carried forward until November or ‘Autumn’.  They have melted from the list of things ongoing or items due to be completed in November.  When do we expect the White Paper now?

The November report said “the Department did not miss any deadlines”.  Isn’t this a tiny bit misleading because there were 5 milestones due to be completed. What has happened to them?

3. Introducing new Actions

New action seem to have crept in to the things in the To Do list.  This is known as ‘Scope Creep’ in the trade.  It is the first hint in predicting potential disaster. Uncontrolled change is the second most important cause of project failure. For the record, wrong initial scope is the primary cause of failure.  All changes need an impact assessment that is approved by the project sponsor, such as the PM, and made fully visible.

For comparison look at how well SIF introduces changes to the specification for interoperability between systems – and how it has been treated by the DfE.  Professional versus amateur.

The risk is that the Implementation Unit might have cursorily scanned the DfE report for red lines, found none and assumed that all is well.  A hard nosed programme manager would immediately smell a rat.  Every complex programme has delays: no delays caused me to look deeper.  Quality Assurance reviews on all the other 13 plans are just as likely to reveal similar hidden changes.  We are still in the dark about when tasks are may be completed.

This is not the way to run the country’s strategic reform policy.

08/12/2010

UK in 3rd Division for Education

Filed under: Education,Outcomes,Policy — lenand @ 3:00 am
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A McKinsey report shows how to improve school systems.  Their research suggests that common sets of interventions can help systems move from one performance level to the next, without regard to culture, geography, politics, or history.  You will have to register to see the full article – 126 pages.  As they (including Sir Michael Barber) say:

“This report looks closely at 20 school systems from different parts of the world, and from an array of starting points, that have registered significant, sustained, and widespread student outcome gains, and examines why what they have done has succeeded where so many others failed. In undertaking this research, we have sought to understand which elements are specific to the individual system and which are of broader or universal relevance. We believe that what we have discovered will help other systems and educational leaders to replicate this success.”

There are many findings that are significant in the UK context.  Page 21 has a “Universal Scale”  that compares across systems, across countries by expenditure by pupil.  The UK is in a ‘Good’ category , but behind Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Ontario, who are in the ‘Excellent’ and ‘Great’ divisions.

It is not an easy read, but the results have great credibility.  The webcast may give some people a softer introduction and a wider view from round the world.  One eye opener for me is the degree of confidence in Singapore in the use of English as the prime language of tuition, where it is not the national language of any of the multi-racial society.  In 1983, the government mandated that English would be the medium of instruction in all subjects, except the mother tongue. The majority of parents saw English as offering the greatest employment opportunities for their children.  The UK system produces 25% of young people that do not recognise a link between reading and success; people with poor literacy are least likely to be in full-time employment at the age of thirty.

From a point of Quarkside continuity, look at the quality of this report compared to the one commissioned by DfE on SIF. None of McKinsey’s finding could be challenged, they are all based on solid research.  Perhaps Sir Michael Barber should be called back to DfE, he was responsible for the oversight of implementation of the Prime Minister’s priority programs in health, education, transport, policing, the criminal justice system and asylum/immigration.  On the other hand, could we afford the fees?

24/11/2010

For Standards, follow India

Filed under: Policy,Standards — lenand @ 3:03 am
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UK Public Sector Information Governance standards may as well not exist.  They do exist in pockets, such as the NHS and SIF, but not across government departments.  Compare this with India.  Their vision may sound strange:

“Make all Government services accessible to the Common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realize the basic needs of the common man

But at least they have a vision produced by their Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.  What is the equivalent in the UK?  Quarkside was unable to find one.  Yes there is a web site with a few random archived documents dating from way back.  For example, “The e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) mandates the adoption of XML and the development of XML schemas as the cornerstone of the government interoperability and integration strategy.”  has one document dated 15th May 2001.  Is this really still valid and part of the coalition policy?

This peek into standards was triggered by Bryan Glick who compared India’s approach to Open Standards with the EU and UK.  I could not even trace the EU documents.  How do we expect to compete with emerging economies with large numbers of educated systems developers?  They seem to be following best practice – which we developed a generation ago.   Some rightly argue that standards may stultify innovation, but when it comes to high volume information sharing applications they are critical to success.    The old, boring, approaches must get back on the Government CIO’s agenda.

It is all well and good for ministers to promote moving all transactions on-line, but their officials must tell them that our standards infrastructure is woefully inadequate and not fit for interoperability purposes.  We risk being demoted to the second division by teams that are investing in first class skills and competencies.

23/11/2010

SALTIS shakes DfE tree

Filed under: Education,Standards — lenand @ 4:36 am
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Another champion of standards is Crispin Weston, chairman of SALTIS (Suppliers Association for Learning and Technology In Schools).  In response to a blog on the  NAACE discussion forum he recently said:

“Anyone following this thread may be interested in the open letter I have sent to Lord Hill on behalf of SALTIS, available at http://www.saltis.org/papers.htm. I am hoping that when lines of communication with the DfE reopen, SALTIS and SIFA can cooperate on a more productive and less bumpy approach to handling interoperability in future.”

His frustration at the quality of guidance from the Department is not unique, telling us:

“I agree that the lack of a substantive response is everyone’s frustration at the moment. But I suspect (hope) that this is not a sign of cloth ears, but rather a function of the new government sorting itself out, ministers taking their time to work through their “in” trays, and this particular issue never having been very high on the political agenda. I hope that substantive decisions will start to be taken as budgets get allocated in the Spring. In the meantime, I guess it can’t hurt if we all keep shaking the tree.”

I suppose Quarkside is just another of these tree shakers.  But, perhaps it should not have required a letter to a minister.  There’s no great policy concern. It is only professionals wanting to do a better job for the education community.  We all agree that standards should be used for all levels of interoperability, and I am sure that the Minister will agree.  That leaves the issue with the departmental civil servants.  They should be helping educationalists to do that better job, not putting the brakes on collaboration between suppliers and users.

It is the officials that should be accountable for the detailed strategy and provide sensible advice to what is, effectively, 27,000 buying agencies. Educational resources and administration both need standards. It is only sensible to do it with central support and user consultation.  The publication of inaccurate findings is not helpful and has delayed the adoption of reasonable standards.  Both SALTIS and SIF need useful responses from DfE.

Education is naturally fragmented and it needs some super glue.

21/11/2010

Apps expose time and money for SIF

Filed under: Education,Innovation,Standards,Technology — lenand @ 10:46 am
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One of the criticisms of innovation, such as information sharing, is that it needs time and money to research and implement.  The benefits case has been made many times, but it still needs some initial investment.

Here’s Quarkside’s idea for schools who may be spending money on licences for Outlook, Word etc.  Google Apps Education Edition offers a free (and ad-free) set of customisable tools that enable teaching staff, other staff and students to work together and learn more effectively.  When the time comes for renewal, consider looking at the administration efficiency gains obtainable from Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF) products.

It’s not an instant solution, but there’s virtue in thinking ahead.

16/11/2010

No2UID – but SIF keeps using them

Filed under: Education,Innovation,Technology — lenand @ 11:47 pm
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Last week, Quarkside made the case for assertion based identity matching, avoiding reliance on imperfect UIDs.  How come I am such a strong supporter of the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF), which does rely on GUIDs (Globally Unique Identifiers)?

  1. You do not need a Unique Identifier (UID).
  2. The Law does not demand it.
  3. Alternatives are better.

This has developed into the ambitions of No2UID. Paradoxically, this does not mean that there is no place for UIDs. Take the example of the  (SIF). The SIF specification requires every thing to have a Global Unique Identifier (GUID) – essentially a UID. The reason is simply that systems that use UIDs are here now. They do work and are simple to understand by school administrators using systems interoperating via SIF.

  • If a child changes any personal information, such as subjects studied or contact telephone number. Then the same information is automatically available to any other authorised system. No data has to be re-entered into another system AND the data is exactly the same. It is more efficient and errors are reduced. Error correction is currently one of the most time consuming processes.
  • The concept of one system providing a master reference record makes sense. The master record must be correct and school administrators are blissfully unaware of the background processing, linking via GUIDs.
  • SIF has a hub at the centre of many systems, known as a Zone Integration Server, or a ZIS. A ZIS does not store any data; it only checks the data quality. It only orchestrates the transfer of valid records.

So I don’t discount UIDs. It’s all part of evolution. But I won’t say that UIDs are essential. No2UID solutions are not off the shelf and it will take several years to develop the toolkits.

14/11/2010

CapGemini Commission Questions

Filed under: Education,Policy,Standards,Technology — lenand @ 11:16 pm
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The interaction between the SIF Association and DfE has generated most interest on Quarkside, and justifies continuing with no answers forthcoming from DfE.   This post focusses on the Capgemini commission for the DfE System-wide interoperability review.  The following items should have been delivered in the final report:

  • business drivers and requirements for data exchange
  • assessment of current ESCS sector capability (including SIF)
  • assessment of UK government direction of travel and capability
  • target conceptual architecture for the sharing / exchange of data
  • solution options for delivering the target architecture and recommendations
  • consideration of issues relating to the ongoing provision of any required business services, including options and recommendations
  • high level investment case
  • outline delivery roadmap

Great stuff.  They are all most pertinent input to deciding a local interoperability strategy for schools. The Department should be pleased to publish them since there is now no possibility of conflict with Becta advice.  Policy and strategic direction is now in the right, accountable, place.  They quark the needs, the business case and the technology direction. [Process>Governance>Technology].

Previous SIF Association conferences have covered all three in their proceedings.  They have the Specification, a draft Business Case (with Atkins Global on the spreadsheet properties) and the Technology.  This investment should not be written off without due cause or rational explanation.  The ‘only kid on the block’ should be nurtured by DfE, not neglected.  When all schools become freed from local authority control, they will really need all methods of minimising administration complication and costs.

If CapGemini have not delivered the goods, then here are three questions worth asking:

  1. What were the contract value, terms and conditions?
  2. What was the correspondence between the DfE and CapGemini that authorised reducing the scope?
  3. How much has been paid for the report?

A Freedom of Information request may drag out some answers, but maybe some readers of Quarkside already know them.

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