Staff at the Department for Education (DfE) and Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) are adopting Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to make their jobs more rewarding and time increasingly productive. By doing so, they’re investing in the nation’s future.
The Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, is reputed to have once said, “If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.” He and many since have understood the indisputable fact that education is a cornerstone of opportunity, wealth creation and democracy. As such, the DfE, ESFA and the wider education system it serves play a vital role in securing the future of the UK.
The department and its executive agencies employ about 6,000 people, overseeing a budget of £103.5 billion. Its staff keep the wheels of teaching and learning turning, serving almost 21,500 state schools. Not to mention the 1.6 million students in further education and sixth form colleges and 1.4 million two to four year olds in early education, among others. They also have a crucial role in helping disadvantaged children and young people to achieve more, while making sure that local services protect and support vulnerable children.
This is why it’s vital the department runs like a well-oiled machine with important processes and day-to-day activity taking place without a hitch. This includes handling enquiries, processing applications, managing cases, allocating funding and much more.
It’s unsurprising that automation technologies – as part of a wider digital transformation strategy – are becoming more important than ever to the department. As Mindy Lalria, head of digital insight, explains, “We embarked on our wider automation project about three years ago and have made great progress.”
More recently, Mindy and her colleagues within the digital team have implemented RPA software with UiPath. It’s been a real grass-roots revolution for the department, with those at the front-line often championing the software.
David Craig, director of data science, says, “The leadership within the department need to focus on strategy and this often means they’re not close to day-to-day operations. They’re keen to ensure goals are met, rather than worrying so much about how this takes place. As a result, it’s those who are undertaking processes and doing the leg-work who are embracing RPA most.”
While vitally important, these tasks can be unrewarding, repetitive and endless. When given the opportunity to offload this type of activity to a software robot, staff jump at the chance. Sophie Stewart, lead data scientist and RPA lead, says, “Staff are incredibly receptive. When we offered one employee a robot digital assistant, she said we’d made her year.”
This response is an important factor given many people worry about ‘robots taking jobs’. Far from incorrectly assuming it’s a threat, staff see how RPA can improve their working lives, taking mundane tasks away from them so they can focus on higher value activity. This is key to supporting the department’s aim to upskill its people for the future.
Sophie Stewart, lead data scientist and RPA lead
Staff are incredibly receptive. When we offered one employee a robot digital assistant, she said we’d made her year.
As a result, RPA is now making a significant impact and gaining momentum from the bottom up. “We started by working with enthusiasts,” says Sophie. “By identifying processes they find repetitive and unrewarding, then offering a solution.”
By the end of this year there could be the equivalent of 200 ‘digital workers’ operating throughout the department and this may rise to 1,000 by 2025. One of these is called Arnold, jokingly referencing Arnold Schwarzenegger and his role as The Terminator. Yet the job he does couldn’t be more important.
“Arnold is able to read the 60,000 emails we receive each month and classify which team needs to handle them before adding the details to our CRM system,” says Sophie. “Previously, these emails were queued in an inbox for two and a half days, which has been reduced to four minutes. Considering the messages might contain crucial information about a child protection issue, the impact this makes is huge. In the future, we plan to develop Arnold further so he can reply to some emails too.”
There is also a robot managing admin for EU Social Fund claims. He’s affectionately called Barney, after Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Each quarter, the team working with Barney receives 89 claims, each containing five sets of files. Processing these manually took 40 minutes per claim on top of employees’ day jobs. Barney validates the content and uploads it to be checked by a member of staff. The job now takes just 10 minutes and has delivered a reduction of 95% in clerical effort.
Sophie Stewart, lead data scientist and RPA lead
Arnold (robot) is able to read the 60,000 emails we receive each month and classify which team needs to handle them before adding the details to our CRM system. Previously, these emails were queued in an inbox for two and a half days, which has been reduced to four minutes.
“Barney is a relatively small scale automation, but it significantly reduces workload, allowing people to focus on important activity. He also ensures consistency in the claims process, which is another benefit,” enthuses Sophie.
Alice, Brian and Charlotte are another team of robots that deal with qualification funding approval. Each time a new course is created, which includes everything from the new T-Level through to GCSEs and A-Levels, funding approval is required. The process that supports this involves collating information from spreadsheets, Ofqual’s website, SQL databases and elsewhere. It’s incredibly complex.
“Alice, Brian and Charlotte take on different parts of the task, logging into the various sources of information, collating it and sending it to the appropriate person,” says Sophie. “In 2020 this saved the team the equivalent of a full time salary. Considering there are only four in the team, this is huge.”
Meanwhile, Eddison works on the school census, the biggest piece of data collection the department manages. His name comes from a comical acronym: Education Data Division Interactive Service Operational Nudger. Before Eddison was employed, a member of the team manually had to move information from one queue to another.
They did it all day with one person taking a shift each week. It was important, but unrewarding. Eddison took over and now manages 400 queries a day. This is projected to save the equivalent of £60,000 worth of time a year, which can be allocated to work that is more useful and fulfilling.
For example, members of the team can focus on complex tasks that require greater consideration and a human understanding of nuance. Alternatively, they can draft responses and deal with enquiries. Either way, staff can focus on more interesting work and the department gets greater value from them.
“All our robots are in relatively early stages, but each one can be redeployed and scaled,” says Sophie. “Therefore, proving their value at this stage is vital. It’s also important to ensure staff continue to champion their use. This is why we’re very keen to work with those who want a robot, rather than foisting it upon them,” Sophie adds.
“We started training people to develop their own automations in 2019 and have 28 people trained so far, but this will grow quickly as others see just how valuable they can be.” Sophie believes training is vital. “RPA is a tool, just like Excel. Most of us know how to use the basic functions of Excel, but very few are experts. It’s the same with RPA. If you can learn how to use it effectively, you can create robots to handle all sorts of activities. Just imagine if everyone had a robot. It would revolutionise the department!”
For Dave, the progress made so far has been crucial in proving the value of RPA. Moreover, the fact that enthusiasm comes from staff themselves is critical. “We’re building from the ground up,” he says. “The more junior people within the department tend to be younger. They’re digitally savvy and often end up doing lots of process-driven work. They want to step up and do more important tasks. By offloading the routine parts of the job to a robot they can achieve this.” In this way, robots are helping them to shape the jobs of the future.
As they do so, managers are beginning to notice they have more capacity within their teams to get more done. Wider teams can then support strategic goals more effectively. When that happens, senior leaders in the department take note. “Before you know it, RPA begins to revolutionise what we do and what we can achieve,” says Dave. “And it’s all thanks to the enthusiasm of those on the front line. Far from fearing robots, they’re embracing them and introducing a new way of working.”
David Craig, director of data science
Before you know it, RPA begins to revolutionise what we do and what we can achieve. And it’s all thanks to the enthusiasm of those on the front line. Far from fearing robots, they’re embracing them and introducing a new way of working.
With more robots being deployed in the DfE and its agencies, they will become increasingly invaluable, saving time, reducing wasted resources and freeing employees to focus on implementing and enabling policy throughout the entire education sector.
A small change in the way people work at a departmental level can therefore have a huge impact on teaching and learning across the UK. A few hours saved by one team could cascade into huge benefits for thousands of learners.