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Broader horizons

Linking school management and assessment systems could provide a powerful school improvement tool. Gerald Haigh reports

School admin is migrating to the web - that is if it hasn't already flown.

The obvious advantage is that you'll be able to reach your school's information management system (IMS) from wherever you are - in class, in the staffroom, at home, or even on the beach in Benidorm. ("Try not to get suntan lotion on my keyboard, dear, I'm trying to do my PLASC return.") The move to the web is key to achieving the IMS suppliers' vision of anytime, anywhere access to pupil data. It also opens up, of course, easier access by parents and the pupils themselves (at whatever password-protected level is deemed appropriate).

What's important to you, as a customer, though, is that you use your move to the web as just the start of the conversation. For one thing, different suppliers offer different kinds of system. For example, there are technical differences between the way Capita is achieving web access and how Serco Learning is doing it.

The differences lie in whether or not you use a web browser - Serco does, so does Pearson, with its Phoenix IMS. However, Capita's SIMS .net solution links systems via the internet without using a browser. Inevitably, each supplier believes its system is the future.

However, unless you're really interested in the technicalities, the real issues are to do with how easily you - teacher, head of department, headteacher, parent - can see the data that is immediately relevant to you, whether it's "live", intelligible, and whether you can manipulate it within the limits permitted at your level of access. Those are the questions to ask and the comparisons to make.

There are other important issues, too. One of them is to do with the advent of virtual learning environments (VLEs), which present pupil and teacher with everything they need for a teaching programme. Up to now, the focus of discussion in this area has been on curriculum content. Now, though, suppliers are starting to look at the way the learning environment is managed - the move is from VLE to managed learning environment (MLE), with the implication that if schools are to reap the full benefits of a VLE, then it has to be linked to the IMS. The Serco vision, for example, is of full integration between learning materials, pupil data and assessment - in other words the VLE becomes part of the overall management information system. The key link is via assessment, which is inherent in curriculum planning and the construction of learning activities, and which produces data that has to be handled by the management information system.

"We'd expect the big players to put far less emphasis on content - there are content providers. The questions are around the use of the content and the use and management of assessment data - feeding it into the pupils'

records," says Serco Learning managing director Nye Davies.

There are one or two logical directions in which this kind of thinking can go. One currently being enthusiastically demonstrated by Serco Learning is to build on to the IMS a function that compares accumulating assessment data with national targets and benchmarks on a continuous basis, so that the question "How are we doing?" can be answered at any moment, at any level from classroom to senior management without the need to wait for a periodic analysis to be carried out. Potentially a very powerful tool for school improvement, this development is worth a close look.

The implication of this for schools is that perhaps you shouldn't be looking separately - at least in terms of ICT - at curriculum and management. The long forecast integration of the two is probably at hand, with all the consequent implications for school management, administration, timetabling, assessment data-handling and hardware provision - even the allocation of rooms.

At the heart of any management system is the database that holds information on the pupils. It's axiomatic that there should only be one of these, and that anyone that requires pupil information should be able to use it - and that any change should only have to be made once. That being so, there seems no reason why each school should need its own database.

Couldn't the authority, or any grouping of schools, run just one database, to which those who need it have access at the appropriate password-protected level?

That's certainly the thinking at Pearson, and the new version of its Phoenix management system will offer the option of a single database for an authority and its schools. "That clearly means," says Pearson's Roger Plant, "That we'll move to a centralised web server which either the authority will host or we will host at Pearson."

The benefits aren't hard to see - for an authority that needs access to the data anyway, and also has the task of keeping its school's systems up to date, and for a school that won't have to worry about upgrading and security.

Pearson clearly shares the Serco vision of complete integration of learning, assessment, data collection and management. And as it has within its business empire a well established assessment and testing division as well as a publisher - Longman - which is already moving some of its materials to CD-Rom and the web, Pearson seems to be in a strong position to move forward.

All of this, of course, offers healthy competition to market leader SIMS from Capita. And as you'd expect, there's no sign of stagnation at SIMS headquarters. A friendlier version of its well known Assessment Manager appeared this summer, and Capita says the same updating drive continues across the whole product.

"We're focusing on making it much easier to use - so that, for example, when you log on you'll only see what's relevant to your role," says Capita's Sean Massey. "We're bringing it all together into a much easier interface."

SIMS also has a new document management system that can store letters and other supporting documents alongside pupil records. Finally, it's worth keeping abreast of developments at Bromcom.

Starting out with a wireless registration package, the company has steadily expanded its range. The latest product, to be launched at BETT, is e-Markbook, a school-wide system for handling assessment data. The logical way forward for the company is to package all of its products as a full IMS, and this is what it is now launching as e-School MIS.

Checklist for IMS

* Does it give each user (management, classroom teacher, parent, pupil) quick and easy access at the level he or she needs?

* Can data be easily entered or edited at the appropriate level of access?

* Is access available anytime, anywhere?

* Is the data on display live and up to date?

* Does the system allow obvious and easily harvested benefits for the day-to-day work of the classroom teacher?

How IMS should work

* In the evening, a teacher gets out her laptop to check on her programme for next day via the internet.

* She can click on any of her lessons and call up a list of the pupils.

Then she can examine the performance data and update it if necessary.

* There's a link to the learning materials her group will be using and she can call up the necessary resources.

* She can enter any test results online and the school's database will be immediately updated.

* Across town, a parent checks his daughter's timetable for the next day.

He looks over her current performance level with her, they check on any homework she should have done and make sure she's ready for the next day's action.

* Will your current management software do all of this, and more?


Bromcom C20 Tel: 020 8695 8080

Capita D20 H34 Tel: 01234 838091

Serco Learning B72 Tel: 01332 660 555

Pearson X34A Tel: 01722 344 800

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