“Finding the right fit” … the difficulties of establishing school data systems as a ‘single source of truth’ (1/2)

The idea of a ‘single source of truth’ (SSOT) is an important concept in data management. The SSOT is the central data platform from which all other systems can access data. As such, the SSOT provides a point of reference for the whole school, this ensuring the consistency of data within an organisation. Any new data collected by other systems should be fed immediately back to this master system. In layman’s terms, then, a SSOT ensures that every data system in the school is ‘singing from the same page’.

In theory, the benefits of establishing a SSOT are straightforward enough. Updates to data (such as a change of parental address) only need to be made in the master ‘source of truth’ location, thus ensuring that different systems in the school are not running from incorrect information. Yet, in practice establishing a SSOT architecture within a school is not as easy as it might sound, with staff in our schools keen to highlight a number of technical and conceptual difficulties.

For example, in infrastructural terms, technical teams in all three of our research schools face ongoing struggles to maintain their systems’ integrity on a whole-school basis. For example, the IT staff in Northlands felt confident that their use of the main CENT-R platform acted essentially as ‘our source of truth for anything to do with business operations’”. Here, ‘business’ operations were taken to involve data relating to the schools’ finance systems, timetabling, student and parent information. Other business-related systems in the school are set up to sync with the CENT-R platform each night to ensure consistency.

Less consistent, however, are other forms of data relating to what were described to us as “academic and care functions pastoral care, results, learning stuff … lesson planning”. These various forms of data are located primarily in Northland’s LMS (SchoolWide) and various other systems that the school runs for jobs such as music lessons. In this sense,  the Northlands IT team conceded that: “CENT-R is, yeah, the source of truth as for as much of our stuff as we can”.

Similarly, IT staff in Brookdale had tried their best to ensure system integrity by steering clear of purchasing products that “try to be another source of truth for student data … that set out to be all-encompassing”. In this sense, IT staff described the constant ‘interoperability’ challenge of adding suitable systems to the school data infrastructure in the style of a jigsaw puzzle – as one IT manager put it, “find[ing] the right fit”.

As Brookdale’s Director of IT explained, it had not been possible to stick to this principle with regards to the recent addition of a new system to manage parental approvals for excursions, sports participation, medical treatment and similar non-teaching activities. The purchase of this systems stemmed largely from the insistence of the school leadership, and was now the source of ongoing interoperability problems for Brookdale’s IT staff:

“I try to make CENT-R as that single source of truth.  But obviously there are some systems that don’t like to do that and in some ways are designed to have their own source of truth of data.  A good example of that is Consent-All … It’s just been brought in … but because of the way that system is designed, the truth medical data is Consent-All …. I want it to be CENT-R but it’s not.  The parents put the data into Consent-All and that writes that data back into CENT-R – but there are some data that doesn’t get written back. For example, Consent-All doesn’t write back the medical plans that the parents have to fill out legally … the special forms that they get from a doctor [that detail] the procedure that you’d follow in case of, you know, anaphylaxis occurring.  That plan doesn’t come back into CENT-R, it always 100% stays in Consent-All. They don’t have a method of bringing that into our source of truth.  So, at the moment our nurses manually download that and insert into consent – into CENT-R”


This manual work-around was described as a regular source of unwarranted additional work for the school’s medical team, as well as adding an unnecessary potential element of human error into Brookdale’s overall ‘data ‘integrity’.

The fact that these two systems could not be aligned in a satisfactory manner was due – at least in part – to the reliance of schools such as Brookdale on relatively cheap locally-produced software and systems. With schools across Melbourne using hundreds of different systems and platforms, these local IT companies had little knowledge of how to align their product with the other systems within any particular school. Brookdale’s IT staff described a frustrating process of liaising with the producers of Consent-All and CENT-R in an attempt to contract them to customise the school’s products, but finding that his own staff often ended up doing the work for them:

“We’ll have some more technical conversations with them and go backwards and forwards, but it does then land on my team to end up having to do this interpretation. Consent-All don’t have a really thorough understanding of CENT-R …  [these are] small companies, you know, with one or two developers just doing lots of custom work …they don’t really understand it and so they end up leveraging the knowledge of my team!”