Giving Our Schools the Right Tools to Turn Data Into Better Decisions


I’m driven by a core belief in the transformational power of education—and everyone I work with at Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) feels the same. Even those of us not working directly at the coal face with teachers in our schools are motivated by the knowledge that our efforts will help students in the classroom. Our team's mission is to combine the value of data-driven decisions with the transformational power of education. We believe that data analytics is a creative force, and there’s great value in combining analytics with your gut feel to make better choices.

ISV represents 235 independent member schools who operate around 370 schools and campuses in the state of Victoria, Australia. The major thing our members have in common is that they are so diverse, with different needs. Our largest school has around 4,300 students, but we also have small schools with 10–20 students. Some of our schools are long established—they were created when Victoria was still a colony—but we also have newer schools, including ones that serve different educational philosophies and religious backgrounds. Some of our schools are in metropolitan Melbourne, some in other regions within the state, and some even have international campuses.  

Serving such a diverse group presents a real challenge for a not-for-profit member service organisation. ISV offers a wide range of services to our members, from advocating on their behalf with government and in broader society, to compliance, employment relations, media advice, and professional learning. 

The school leaders we serve are extremely busy. They are dealing with students, parents, and staff, but also government, statutory bodies, curriculum bodies, and the like. Sometimes, the first chance a school principal gets in their day to look into an issue is well after business hours, often after they’ve put their children to bed at night.

We realised we needed to expand how we delivered our services to members, and created a number of digital services and products to help provide the information and support to our members wherever they need it, whenever is convenient for them.

We Are Data Brokers, but Data Needs Context

I’ve been with ISV since 2016, and all of the work we have done since then stems from an initial decision by our CEO, Michelle Green: we should be data brokers for our schools. 

One of the benefits of being an independent school principal is you have a degree of autonomy that principals in other systems don’t enjoy. That’s powerful, but there’s also a downside: It can be isolating because you don’t have a natural peer group to compare yourself against. Michelle is an innovative chief executive, and as far back as the early 2000s, she realised that ISV is a natural peer group, and we should develop data and benchmarking services to provide insights back to our schools. 

By the time I came on board, we had benchmarking services around what we call our LEAD School Effectiveness Surveys, which are satisfaction surveys of the key cohorts within the school—students, parents, staff, and governing body members—as well as benchmarks on finances, human resources, and salaries and conditions of employment.

We used to present the significant amount of data and information these services generate back to our schools through reports delivered as inches-high stacks of paper. We had more data than we could put into the reports, too, and we received more data every year as we expanded our benchmarking services. These huge printed reports allow us to keep everyone happy by offering information everyone will find valuable. But that doesn’t leave room to drill down into certain areas that are of interest to individual schools.

Data needs context. Empower your end users to access data and then provide their own context to it.

My background’s in social research. Before I was Head of Research and Technology at ISV, I conducted research across Australia in all three education sectors: schools, universities, and vocational education and training. I know that there’s power in data only once you apply context to it. When I first started in this role, schools would ring me to ask, “Can you come here and tell us what this means?” That set off alarm bells for me, because try as I might to learn everything about a school, I don’t know what the prevailing attitude is in the classroom, staff room, or car park. Furthermore, it’s not for Michelle Green or me to make choices for schools—it’s the schools themselves who have to make decisions based on data. They need access and to be able to apply their own context to it.

An End-to-End Solution That Could Handle Our Complexity

As we started down the path of launching a new solution to put data insights into the hands of school leaders, our chosen partner ran into trouble. We needed a new partner fast, because we had already made a commitment to deliver this strategic initiative to our membership. 

At that stage, we didn’t have any core capabilities around data science. That’s since changed, but at the time, we needed a partner to help us through this. The end-to-end data analytics experts at Oremy Australia stepped in to offer that support. As a not-for-profit, IT contractors sometimes don't understand who we are and what drives us: our mission. But Oremy Australia took the time to understand our business problem and what success looks like for us. It was invaluable to have a trusted partner working tirelessly so we could deliver on a promise we made to our members.  

With their help, we built isAnalyse, our analytics platform, which is built on Qlik Sense. isAnalyse is one of a number of digital products and services that make up isEducation, a suite of tools that gives school leaders online access to the tools and resources they need, whenever they need it. 

My colleague, Nigel Bartlett, and I were the initial people charged with delivering this project, and we took a very broad approach to choosing a data analytics solution to power isAnalyse. Any solution would need to handle the complexity of our data, so we cast a wide net. We looked at everything out there, starting with resources like the Gartner Magic Quadrant to narrow down our list of BI providers to a group of five. Then we narrowed that down to a couple solutions.   

We chose Qlik Sense because it seemed to do two things better than the other platforms. First, it could handle the complexity around what we were trying to do with benchmarks: Show this data, hide that data, add these variables, configure it for benchmark groups. Other tools seemed less sophisticated in that regard. Second, we could use it as an end-to-end solution. Back when we started this project, a lot of our data was housed in Excel. We had some databases, but could add a bit more structure with Qlik. We felt we could build that end-to-end process with Qlik. 

Enabling Real-Time Data-Informed Discussions

Through isAnalyse, ISV can extend our personal touch to every one of our schools. Schools can now log in and filter data to make it actionable for them. Benchmarks are meaningful only if you believe that the schools you’re comparing yourself against are actually comparable. Comparing a school of 3,500 students to a school of 20 is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Through Qlik Sense, isAnalyse allows schools to finely tailor their benchmark group. By filtering out schools unlike them, schools get a more accurate reflection of how they’re doing and makes data actionable for the individual school.

Benchmarks are only meaningful if you’re accurately comparing yourself.

Beyond our initial reasons for selecting Qlik, as we’ve evolved we’ve learned that the power of Qlik is in its ability to quickly pull together and visualise data. Some former principals of our member schools, who now work as consultants for us, recall cutting out charts from our paper reports and sticking them to a meeting room wall. 

Now, schools can easily pull up fresh visualisations on a screen to fuel real-time data discussions where they can interrogate that data. For example, if we’re having problems in the junior school, where does the problem lie? And how can we replicate our success in the senior school? 

The speed at which we can now provide data and analytics is particularly significant with regard to our LEAD school effectiveness surveys. It used to be that by the time we submitted our reports, the year 12 students surveyed had already graduated, meaning schools didn’t have the chance to follow up with them on how to improve. With quicker access to data, schools can better plan based on graduating students’ feedback. 

A Platform Attuned to Our Digital World Helps Us Prepare for Future Shocks

We also use the platform internally to look for ways we can better support our schools. We use it to support our advocacy and policy efforts, to explain what can at times be complex policy issues. And it’s been invaluable as we’ve helped our schools through this rocky period we’re all going through. 

The shock of the pandemic hit many of our member schools extremely hard. For schools in Victoria, where there were consistent lockdowns for long periods, the pandemic flipped the model of teaching on its head overnight. That had financial repercussions as well. With the help of the analysis in Qlik, we are developing more tools to help buffer our schools from future environmental and economic shocks. Notably, all the strategic work we did in setting up these online services enabled us to seamlessly provide the same level of service when our office was closed.

I’m proud of how using Qlik, coupled with all of the hard work from the many people involved in the development of isAnalyse, enabled us to better use data as an organisation. We know our member schools intimately, so our hunches were always pretty good, but now we have more than gut feelings to make decisions. Our schools, too, have the support they need to apply their own context to their own data, to make the right choices for their school. 

It’s an exciting time for ISV, because we’re planning more data-driven applications. We’re working to release an updated version of everything we’ve done, which will be more streamlined in terms of school access to products and services. 

Our work through isAnalyse and other digital products and services we’ve created has helped move the organisation to an association more attuned to the digital world in which our schools operate. Everyone involved in this project has set the organisation up for its next phase, which is aligned to the way the world works today.