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And where has Darren been today?

Home-school Web links offer a whole raft of benefits to both parties, but as Gerald Haigh explains, it is important not to overburden a teacher's workload as well as to avoid the Big Brother effect on pupils

Imagine this - and do not doubt that it will become reality. A family is sitting contentedly before their widescreen digital TV. Young Darren says he has no homework, so he's sharing their enjoyment of Coronation Street. Suddenly, however, a little window pops up on the screen that says: "Mrs Smith. Just thought you ought to know that Darren wasn't in school today."

As part of the ensuing inquest, Mrs Smith logs on to the school website and, using her password, checks Darren's attendance for the past two weeks. Then she finds out what his homework should be, and sends him up to his room to do it. When he's gone she sends an email to Darren's year head asking for an appointment for an interview. The year head, catching up on some work at home, reads the email and takes a preliminary look at Darren's attendance and grades for himself. During Peak Practice, he replies to Mrs Smith suggesting she come in first thing next morning.

School management on the Web, with access to different groups of people at different levels, is the latest thrust in the field of school management information systemsI The major software packages, including Capita's SIMS, CCM's Facility CMIS, RM Management Solutions, Bromcom's My Child at School, are all offering portals or "gateways" by which heads, teachers, governors, parents and students can look at school management data from home, or anywhere else for that matter.

It's an attractive proposition. Heads and senior managers will be able to work on their data at home. Partner schools, or split sites, can be brought together. Parents can keep in touch with students' progress. The students themselves can check on homework, attendance, performance against personal targets.

All the suppliers are aware that these developments present schools with some management challenges that are interesting to say the least. Just what data do you allow parents to see, for example? Everything that relates to their own child? If not, why not?

Then who will be able to change what data? That's going to be a matter for individual schools to decide - and the nature of the decision will in many ways reflect each school's own values and priorities.

The potential growth of email raises question, too. It's going to be easy, within any of the systems, to set up a link on the wesite whereby parents, having reviewed their child's performance, can follow up with an email asking a particular teacher some questions. Should the school build this in? It seems like a good, parent-friendly thing to do. On the other hand, teachers, in class most of the day, already have problems keeping up with their email correspondence. Here's something that could well add very significantly to their workload, taking them away from the core tasks of planning and preparing work for their students. One way or another, management will have to tackle this.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to prevent home-school Web links from becoming intimidatory to students. If young Darren feels he can't move an inch then his attitude to school may become worse rather than better. For that reason, CCM's Facility CMIS, for example, presents a friendly face to students on the Web, with a page that welcomes them and asks them what they want to know. Says director John Rootham, "We'd like to think that students will look at their school data as part of their ordinary Web-surfing sessions."

David Burgess, business development manager at Capita Education Services voices the thoughts of everyone involved in this field when he says that it's down to schools to decide how they want to use this technology.

Critics will home in on the fact that all these products assume access to the Internet. Suppliers, though, like to suggest that the gap between computer "haves" and "have-notes" is being bridged all the time, particularly as Web access through digital television takes off. Meanwhile, Bromcom is addressing the problem by introducing their "Voice Portal" which gives the option of getting information by telephone from their "My Child at School" system. It's described by Bromcom as "the world's first ever internet-linked voice messaging system".

In all of this we are seeing the beginning of a sequence of events that will start with school management having to look at handling email and parental access to pupil data. From there, the debate will move to whether, and how, this new route into school will affect existing areas of home-school contact.

Beyond that, who knows. As areas of school life migrate to the Web, questions will be raised about the whole nature and definition of schooling. It may well yet be that the de-schoolers of the Seventies were only 30 years ahead of their time.

CCM Softwarewww.facility.ieCapita Education

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