In Scotland, the approach to information technology in schools has always been a little different. The plaintive skirl of the Apple Mac is heard there much more often than south of the border; distance has speeded the introduction of video-conferencing and, in the school office, the uses to which computers are put differ in some significant details.
In England and Wales, information systems have grown up alongside local management of schools and have, to a considerable extent, been designed to support the self-managing school.
In Scotland, the relationship between schools, local authorities and the Scottish Office has remained close until now, and financial accounting at school level, for example, has had to be closely linked to the way things are done at the authority. The Scottish examination system, too, makes its own sort of information demands.
For these reasons, most Scottish schools (with the exception of those in Strathclyde region) have for some years been using the same management information system, SCAMP, designed and supplied by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.
Two years ago, however, it was apparent that SCAMP was no longer quite the lively terrier it used to be. "It was showing its age," said chief executive Nigel Paine. Because it was designed for particular centrally-defined needs, it is not good at doing new tricks. "It will give you some 250 standard reports, but it is difficult to get non-standard ones," he said.
Dr Bob Simpson, the head of Douglas-Ewart High School in Newton Stewart, knew exactly what this meant. "With SCAMP, we get a very rapid response to any of the questions which the system allows us to ask. What we don't have is the ability to interrogate the data freely, so if we have a question of our own which isn't covered by the system, we can't ask it. The system was really set up as a Seventies product, and computers have moved on since then."
Consequently, explained Nigel Paine, "we decided two years ago not to redevelop SCAMP, but to build a new system taking account of modern technology." The new product, SCETWorks, has been designed with the help of schools and authorities and is in its final development stages. It will go out in pilot form this month, with first releases later in the spring. The claim is that "it is all about gathering information on the school and making that information as openly available as possible. Every bit of data that is stored can be exported in a variety of formats into spreadsheets, word processors, databases or any other of the applications that schools use."
It certainly looks up-to-the-minute, with pull-down menus, pop-up boxes and lots of on-screen help. Written in Dataflex, a modern database language, the system is designed so that it can be kept up-to-date and flexible.
Data entry is made as easy as possible with the help of lots of well-thought-out defaults. Core modules will include registration, student records, staff records, curriculum, and links to the Scottish Vocational Education Council and the Scottish Examination Board.
I suggested to Nigel Paine that schools and authorities in Scotland may take the arrival of this new product as an opportunity to look also at some of the systems vying for business in England and Wales. The impending re-organisation of Scottish local government will surely move centres of influence and decision-making in a way which can only attract suppliers looking for new markets.
Nigel Paine is bullish about this, believing strongly not only that SCETWorks is a good product, but that it serves the particular needs of Scottish schools. "Others may come in, but they'll find it difficult to persuade customers. " Heads seem to bear this out, feeling that systems written for English and Welsh schools will need changes to appeal to Scottish users.
Be that as it may, I hear that SIMS - the computerised management system used by most schools south of the border - is active in building on interest that has been shown in its products both by individual Scottish heads and some local authorities. Opinion at SIMS Centre seems to be that any cross-border software gaps can be filled. Some English schools use Scottish examinations, so the SIMS exam package can handle SEB requirements.
Neither does it seem likely that no other modern pupil database could cope with some of the specifically Scottish needs such as the ability to keep storm addresses to which children can go if a school suddenly shuts or if a ferry or bus stops running. Yet there remains the persuasive power of being able to say that SCETWorks was developed by people who fully understand Scottish diversity.
Scottish heads have high expectations of management systems. Dr Simpson is impatient for progress, and spoke of "being frustrated when somebody has to type something more than once. There's no reason why the principal teacher of chemistry shouldn't sit down at a terminal and type his own orders." He, and others like him, will soon be testing SCETWorks to the limit.
Ian Maxwell, assistant head of Nairn Academy in the Highlands, who has also been helping develop SCETWorks, added a thought about the confidence which users have in SCET itself. "They've come on leaps and bounds in the last three years in producing quality goods, and they are producing a particularly Scottish answer."
SCETWorks will come with a money-back guarantee and, as well as telephone support, the software will give all users access to SCET's own on-line support and information system, Contact.
* SCET - stand 164