One data journalist, one (big) spreadsheet … the data journalism project which grew and grew
By David Ottewell, head of data journalism and Reach PLC’s Data Unit
It started as one data journalist with a great idea hacking together an enormous spreadsheet — and now drives many millions of page views a year for local news websites across the country.
There are many reasons I love the Reach Data Unit’s Real Schools Guide, which reached its seventh edition this week.
One is the traffic and engagement it drives for sites across the group — not just on the day or week it comes out, but across the year, as parents search for individual schools and find everything they need on our pages.
Take this year, for example. Stories announcing the launch of the guide led the most-read lists for just about every title that published one. The Manchester Evening News’ version wasn’t just the most-read local news story last weekend — it did twice as many page views as any other local news story. The WalesOnline version, meanwhile, did even better: 50 per cent better, in terms of pure numbers.
That’s before we even start counting the thousands of people looking at individual pages for each of the 3,000 or so schools in Reach areas that feature in the guide.
Knowing that informational content about such a vital community resource as schools will yield strong performances in the first couple of days alone should be immensely reassuring to anyone who believes in local journalism’s mission to inform.
Then there’s the fact it is an online project that has huge spin-off benefits in print. Online, people can find out not just how well every state-funded school fared in our rating system, but also why: we are very open about how we calculate a school’s performance. We also link to historic data, Ofsted reports, and useful information about the school, like pupil numbers and contact details.
Since we’ve gathered all this data, it’s quite simple for us to create print versions of the guide, filtered by the area each title covers. These have been a publishing fixture, creating a welcome sales boost and advertising opportunities.
The main reason I love the guide, however, is that it shows what can be done by a single journalist with sufficient skill, imagination, and ambition.
In the case of the Real Schools Guide, that journalist is Claire Miller.
Back in 2013, there were only two people in the unit — Claire, and me. Claire had noticed three things. Firstly, traditional school league tables almost always used just one dataset (typically, exam results). That was manifestly unfair to schools in more deprived areas, who might be working wonders with pupils, but would never attain the same results as schools with more privileged intakes. Knowing your school gets worse GCSE results than the grammar down the road isn’t particularly useful, in isolation, to most of our readers.
Secondly, parents rarely care about just one thing when choosing a school. Lots of things, beyond mere exam results, are important. And thirdly: absolutely loads of this data was published, and freely available. It just wasn’t collected together in one convenient place.
The schools guide was, in essence, an attempt to gather all this information in one place. The idea of using it to rate schools in a fairer way came later, as a natural consequence.
Claire worked with academics to come up with a formula that put different amounts of weight on different aspects of a school’s performance. GCSE results remain important; but no more important than the progress children make from when they arrive, to when they leave. The guide also puts some (although less) weight on things like pupil-teacher ratios, absenteeism, and whether pupils go on to further education or jobs.
Over the years we have refined the formula and added further bits of data. In its current incarnation, the guide takes into account 51 different datapoints before assigning a score to a school.
I can no longer claim it is the only guide of its kind. Several imitators have sprung up online, and even the government had started looking at more sophisticated ways of judging schools by data.
Yet our guide remains as popular as ever — and that, I think, is because it is continuously evolving to remain the best in class.
It is always a real highlight to me to see how much pride headteachers, parents and pupils take in their school finishing top of the guide.
As for me, the pride I take comes from knowing that, at its heart, the guide is still what it was in 2013: one data journalist with a great idea, a spreadsheet and a mission, giving power to parents across the country.