Every year colleges are asked to change not only the data that they send to government, but the software and management tools which they use to collect it.

The Autumn College Data Conference held by Lsect was a chance for further education (FE) colleges to discuss good practise with experts and colleagues.

The main conference hall at Morley College was the perfect setting, attracting more than 100 delegates into its traditional architecture on October 10.

Exhibitors at the event included; Capita, who were marketing their Integrated Management Information System and answering delegates’ queries; Drake Lane Associates, known for producing software such as SCORE, 4CAST and ADaM; and Perspective, who were promoting a number of their products including Sunesis, Tracker and Funding Manager.

Nick Linford, Managing Director of Lsect and Managing Editor of FE Week, opened the proceedings before handing over to John Perks, Head of the information authority.

Mr Perks explained to the conference that the data burden was being reduced “throughout all of government”, and that it was designed to try and reduce both administration and the bureaucratic burden in the FE sector.

Mr Perks ran through the 2011/ 12 Individualised Learner Record (ILR) specification, explaining how it had brought together four data collection types for the very first time; learner responsive funding, employer responsive funding, adult safeguarded funding and European social funding.

He added that there were an “awful lot of trials and tribulations” to changing ILRs, and said that he understood it looked like the information authority had “tried to fix something that wasn’t broken”.

However, Mr Perks stressed that the data collection types were “all due to go topsy-turvy anyway”, and that he felt it was “better to stay ahead of the game”.

One of the reasons why delegates had attended the event was to find out how ILRs would change in 2012/13, and how they as providers would need to change their data collection accordingly. Mr Perks explained that that the new system in 2012/13 would only accept Extensible Markup Language (XML), rather than the traditional ‘flat file’ ILR.

He said that there would be no conversion facility available in the new Learner Information Suite (LIS), and therefore college staff would need to get accustomed to the latest system as soon as possible.

Other changes in 2012/13 included three fields set to be removed; provider number (UPIN), planned group based hours, and planned one to one hours, as well as an alteration in ULN validation, reducing the minimum duration of learning aims to 10 days.

“We have gone as far as we can go in terms of just changing the data allocation,” Mr Perks said.

“We want to make sure as far as possible that data allocated is data we will use.”

Mr Perks added that he had been under pressure from day one to reduce data in the ILR.

He said: “The most important thing is that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Your college needs you, so make your voice heard.”

Rich Williams, Head of the Data Service continued the data conference with a presentation titled ‘Strategic replatforming of data collection systems’.

Mr Williams stressed that there had been important changes to FE funding arrangements recently, emphasising in particular how minimum contract values (MCVs) had put increased pressure on providers.

He said LIS had undergone a number of major changes, taking on board feedback from various beta versions which the Data Service had made available to the public.

Mr Williams announced that there would be a maintenance release for LIS on October 13, with a following patch for the Online Data Collections (OLDC) systems on October 23.

He also announced that the majority of providers had submitted their RO2 ILR return, which had been due on October 06. This included a return from 687 providers, with 1,738,000 aims for 528,464 learners.

Mr Williams said they would “completely replatform” the OLDC for the summer of 2012, using a portal approach based on SharePoint 2011.

“We’re planning to use the portal as a single one stop shop for you,” he said. “Hopefully it will stand the test of time.”

He added that the new system would use Oracle Policy Automation (OPA), migrating from Oracle to SQL server and removing Provider Online (POL).

Mr Williams added that the Provider Information Management System (PIMS) would change to a Microsoft platform for “easier interfacing with other collections systems”, and include a redesign of the data structure in Dynamics 2011.

The conference then broke for lunch, giving attendees a chance to stretch their legs and speak to exhibitors.

Upon their return Mr Linford set up a Q&A panel with a number of the conference speakers, including John Perks and Rich Williams.

One delegate asked the panel if anyone was using the Next Step service, as he felt his own college wasn’t getting anything back from it.

John Perks replied: “The Next Step people have, and would say that their system is being used. We are addressing the question of evidence. We certainly want to see the data that is passing through Next Steps. We will be chasing that up.”

Mr Perks stressed that at the moment the feedback from Next Step had only been anecdotal, and that it would be unfair to generalise from specific case studies.

However, Mr Perks took a quick show of hands at the conference and found that roughly one in ten delegates thought the system was a complete waste of time.

Another delegate said that based on web traffic no-one had enrolled at his college via Next Step – and that as a result staff at the college were obliged to ignore the system altogether.

Mark Smith, Development Director at Drake Lane Associates and Mark Emerson, MIS Manager at Chelmsford College used the afternoon to take delegates through the technical changes within LIS.

This included changes to field names, the structure of tables and their relationships.

Mark Smith said that table relationships had become much more complex, describing the system as a tree which “has grown much bigger”.

He added that to avoid errors college staff needed to check their results and validate report output multiple times. Mr Linford had a number of discussions throughout the day, talking about a mixture of updates in the FE sector such as changes to fee remission and the new 16-19 funding formula consultation announced by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) last week. In line with all Lsect conferences the event finished with survey feedback. The most telling was the question: “Do you think data demands in the next few years will increase or decrease?”

Roughly 78 per cent said they thought the burdens of data handling would increase (see figures here).

This reinforced not only just how important the issue of data handling is for FE colleges, but also the need for “simplification” in all aspects of data collection.

Only once providers start using the latest software and submitting ILRs will we know if the changes have been for the better.

Delegates and FE Week Gold Members have been emailed a full copy of the conference slides

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