#DataYou: Kate Farrell

A world-first data science qualification for school-aged learners has been developed in Scotland. As part of  the #DataYou series, DDI Skills Gateway spoke with Kate Farrell, driving-force behind the National Progression Award (NPA) in Data Science, as she explains how it can be relevant to a huge range of careers that young people might be considering.


When Kate Farrell started thinking about how to embed data across the school curriculum, she was surprised how many subject areas it already touched.

“It’s obviously there in computer science and maths, because there is a lot of information handling, but applying data skills can be found throughout the curriculum,” says Farrell, who leads a DDI  Skills Gateway programme project, to develop curricular resources on data science.

“It’s there in music, understanding how streaming sites and preferences work, or using artificial intelligence or machine learning to generate new music. The entire works of Beethoven were analysed by machine learning, his unfinished symphony was finished, and has been played by musicians.”

Farrell also highlights home economics, where the nutritional value of food can be data-analysed, as well as food miles: “Look where ingredients come from and ask if it’s sustainable. That leads into discussions on climate change.”

Her hope is to provide core data skills development across the whole 3-18 curriculum leading to the NPA in Data Science, offered at three different levels (4, 5 & 6) on Scotland’s qualifications ‘ladder’.


Farrell is excited by the potential of a world-leading qualification: “The DDI programme has raised the profile of data enormously and allowed us to create what we think is the world’s first formal data science qualification available to schools across the whole country. It’s a great first for Scotland.”

Her vision is that subject teachers will adapt the NPA: “I’d love to see geography specialists teaching a version, looking at satellite and other data to examine climate change, and PE teachers examining the value of data analytics in sport. It’s a flexible qualification that will allow that.”

Farrell, a computing teacher by trade, illustrates this with reference to Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh. Computing and geography teachers are teaching the core units of the data NPA, while maths teachers offer an optional statistics course.

There has already been success at Boroughmuir, where two young people have changed their plans and are looking to study data science at university.


However, Farrell stresses that it is not necessarily about getting students into data science courses, but helping them understand how data is relevant to whatever they want to do.

“Data skills can be used in a wide spectrum of careers, and it’s about showing young people that spectrum. I never realised until I did this job that Scotland had a space industry, where data is really crucial.

“We try to engage young people in different ways – for example, looking at how to use data to analyse how racing cars, or athletes, perform. Large football clubs have data analysts looking at how players, and opponents, perform. That’s happening across many sports.”

Another way of ‘making it real’ for young people is being honest about data – and its capacity to be a positive and a negative force.

“We’ve talked to pupils at Newbattle High in Midlothian about how their data is tracked and logged, and why companies want it. However, we’re careful not to do it in a way that’s just scary. We want to show the potential dangers AND the benefits.

“Many children weren’t happy about the idea of their health and sleep data being monitored, but were more open if it was only shared with doctors and university researchers.

“The pandemic has helped us see how to use data in constructive ways. We’re keen to tell learners they can use data in practical ways to look at issues and challenges and draw conclusions, in their own communities and beyond.”

Currently, around 100 learners in five centres – including Boroughmuir and Newbattle in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region – are undertaking data NPAs. Farrell stresses that the project is only just entering year three of eight and says her longer-term ambition is for any school or college to feel confident and equipped to deliver the qualification.

“Our challenge is ensuring teachers have the skills, and time, to do this. It was a challenge even before the pandemic,” she says.

“We are trying to create tools to make it as simple as possible for teachers to pick it up and run with it, with engaging videos and interesting activities like our ‘Defend the Rhino’ data skills live lesson.The teachers we’re working with are hugely positive.”

Farrell has also seen positive steps in opening up data to groups not generally interested in ‘tech’ subjects: “I think we’re moving away from a situation where it’s seen as geeky, all about numbers and quite male.

“At Newbattle, we see girls in years S1-3 much more engaged in data science experiences than they were in computing courses in years S1-3. I’m hoping this is a way to encourage more young women into this field.”

Again, Farrell stresses, it’s about making it real: “We look at real datasets and what to do with them in terms of problem solving. Young people are interested in campaigning and activism and this is giving them the data and tools for that. We look at interesting issues and ask questions like ‘Are the summers getting warmer?’ We want learners to examine and solve real world problems.”

The National Progression Award in Data Science, which Farrell developed with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, has two core units – data literacy and data science.

“Learners work through data analysis life cycles,” she explains. “It’s about looking at problems, finding solutions, and coming up with conclusions. The ability to communicate findings at the end is hugely important.”

For more information visit the Data Education in School website.

Part of the DDI Skills Gateway #Datayou series. 

Data who_ Kate Farrell (1)

Data skills can be used in a wide spectrum of careers, and it's about showing young people that spectrum. I never realised until I did this job that Scotland had a space industry, where data is really crucial.

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