Early years education is critical to a child’s future development. Software provider Connect Childcare is working with Alliance MBS to look at the key role that data can play.
Studies have consistently shown that the pre-school years are among the most important in any person’s life. The experiences that a child receives in these early years go on to play a vital role in their future development.
As such nursery education has a significant bearing on any child’s development, and the measurement of a pre-school child’s performance against a range of metrics is now regarded with increasing importance by governments across the world.
Against this backdrop one UK software provider to nurseries is now playing an increasing role. North West-based Connect Childcare is a leading provider of management software solutions for up to 3,000 nurseries across the country, supplying many of the country’s leading nursery groups. These solutions cover areas such as the overall management of nurseries, the observation of children, and communication with parents.
CEO Chris Reid says the business has a “phenomenal” amount of real-time data, but at the moment does not have the internal capacity to analyse it. “For instance we collate around a million observations a month on children and then share that data back to parents, enabling them to adopt strategies at home that link in with what the child is learning at nursery and which can further improve the child’s development. But we have no effective feedback loop from all this data that we collect, we need to make better sense of it all.”
Faced with this challenge the company turned to data analytics specialists at Alliance MBS to help, and it has just embarked on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the School.
KTP Associate Dr Hichem Barki, a machine learning and data scientist. supported by Senior Lecturer in Decision Sciences Dr Yu-wang Chen, will now work with the company on a 30-month programme.
Adds Reid: “We will take all the various data channels we have and flatten them, leveraging data science expertise so that we can think more deeply about machine learning and predictive analytics. We need to understand exactly what our data can do.”
Among the key questions that the KTP will seek to answer will be the impact of parental engagement in terms of overall child development. “We know that there is tremendous knowledge in this data we have. For instance by unpicking the data further we would be able to evidence what impact parental engagement has on a particular aspect of a child’s development.”
Reid says better organising his company’s data is particularly important given the challenges that the UK pre-school sector faces at the moment. One of the biggest is around the funding of nurseries since the government introduced a 30 hours free childcare scheme in 2017 which allowed parents of three- and four-year-olds to claim an extra 15 hours a week in free care, doubling the allowance from the original 15 hours.
“The government has become the largest purchaser of childcare in the country,” he adds. “Yet the rate at which local government pays nurseries per hour is less than the cost of delivery, and the sector is being squeezed. By better understanding our data it will help give us solutions to tackling this particular challenge.”
Dr Chen says the key objective of the KTP is to establish a data analytics platform that can create, refine and automate data gathering, analysis and reporting in ways that can generate additional revenue or capability.
“The platform will enable the company and its clients to respond promptly to changes in policy and market conditions, and contribute to government policy discussions by utilising trusted business intelligence to inform the decision-making process. The KTP will also apply machine learning and optimisation technologies for data management to a legacy software system.
“In the UK the early years foundation stage sets standards for the learning, development and care of a child from birth to five years old, and this project will also establish a basis for assessing the economic value of real-time data in the early years sector to transform the data available to business, government, and society. It will also evaluate the impact of 30 hours free childcare.”
Dr Chen says there are strong benefits for Alliance MBS researchers too. As he adds: “This project has the potential to contribute to policy decision-making and engage a wide range of fellow researchers and practitioners from across The University of Manchester to establish a solid foundation for a truly influential impact case study.”
Meanwhile Reid believes the KTP will give him precisely the framework he needs as he seeks to exploit new markets. “Right now we are looking to expand internationally and the KTP will definitely help us build a data-driven analysis model to benchmark globally. We see extremely strong opportunities for our business stemming from this KTP and, as Dr Chen says, there is a significant wider societal benefit too.”
Dr Yu-wang Chen is a Senior Lecturer in Decision Sciences