In a recent interview, Tim Brighouse, the London schools'
commissioner, explained why he was positive about the future of British education. Along with the obligatory nod towards the importance of school leadership and a heartfelt appreciation of good teaching, Mr Brighouse said he was optimistic because we have better quality information available to policy-makers about what works. "We have excellent data," he says. "We now know far more about school improvement than we ever did before."
He's certainly correct about the data. And not just about the whole-school picture. The information available to a school about an individual pupil is far richer now than it was 10 years ago, with national test scores offering one perspective and a whole barrage of other tests and assessments augmenting the picture.
But how are schools managing such information? Telford and the Wrekin in Shropshire has recently switched as an authority to a new system. At Ercall Wood technology college in Telford, Nick Munt, an advanced skills teacher, explains how it provides a clearer picture of individual students abilities and potential.
"Each year in the autumn term we get a complete list for all of our students of their key stage 2 and 3 scores. For key stage 3, it is for all subjects and, for key stage 2, it covers English, maths and science."
Telford and Wrekin is one of 125 authorities taking part in the Fischer Family Trust performance data project. The trust database contains performance information on more than 10 million pupils. A data manager for Telford handles the information transfer and the authority's schools receive a dataset that offers predictive scores for their pupils in key stages 3 and 4. "We have mapped our results from previous years against the scores," says Mr Munt. "The correlation is around 80 per cent - we think that's good."
The Fischer Trust breakdown comes in the form of a spreadsheet. It shows the student's test score and the related teacher assessment, and the school uses the data to set targets.
"Every member of staff has that target in their mark book, along with verbal and non-verbal reasoning test results," says Mr Munt. "They have all that data on each student - together with a statement of special needs if that is there."
Ercall Wood staff had the raw data before. The difference now is the speed at which it is made available - and the ease of use. "Previously, it may have taken a term and a half to settle down to a knowledge of an individual," he says. Telford thought that Facility CMIS from Serco offered a smoother service. Mr Munt agrees. "Staff enter the information on a PC and the data is available immediately, held on the school's server."
Access is through an e-portal, via the school's intranet or from outside via the internet. The system has been in use since September and staff are still feeling their way, but Mr Munt is confident that staff will soon be accessing the system from home - and that parents will be able to see live student records some time next year.
Just after February half-term, teachers were writing Year 7 reports, the second set in the annual cycle. While there had been teething problems with the new system, Mr Munt thought that the benefits were becoming apparent.
"We have three reporting slots each year; two end-of-term reviews, and a written report in the final term. We offer an effort and attainment grade alongside coded concerns. 'O', for example, means 'organisation'."
This entire process is now done through CMIS, with the eventual written report for the parent generated with the teacher's electronic signature.
Staff don't have to wait until report time to start their work. They can use the system to begin draft comments from the beginning of the school year.
"That is available, alongside all the assessment data, to whoever is teaching that group next," says Mr Munt. "It's not just the grades - the written comment is there for everyone to see."
The next stage is to offer the teacher even more information about the student. Ercall Wood pupils will soon complete an online questionnaire assessing their preferred learning style.
Using Champs, originally developed in the United States as part of the accelerated learning project, the students will answer 35 questions. For example: "I learn well when I get hands onI ", to which the student has five possible replies. The answers build to a profile that can be stored.
It would identify kinaesthetic learners - children more comfortable in a practical "doing" environment, alongside other learning styles.
"This tells us that there are abilities to be developed," says Mr Munt. "It talks about strengths and weaknesses, about a child's preferred way of learning."
Mr Munt is also responsible for ICT at Ercall Wood, and he clearly believes in its potential to make a difference. "There's clear evidence that the departments that use these systems effectively get better results," he says. But he stresses that the biggest factor in attainment is the quality of teaching in the classroom.
"These systems allow teachers to tweak their lessons to meet students'
individual needs. And the best teachers can use that really effectively.
It's about individual approaches to young people. It's a matter of planning for a range of approaches with the knowledge that this student is weak in one area, but strong in another."
It seems to work. Ercall Wood is in the top 5 per cent of schools in the national value-added tables . The assessment information is only a part of the explanation for that success, but how can any school move its students on unless teachers are aware of where they are starting from?
Facility CMIS is an integrated system that provides attendance registration for each lesson, and time-tabling, alongside tools for financial and personnel management: www.sercolearning.comfacility_cmis.htmThe Fischer Family Trust is an independent, non-profit organisation involved in undertaking and supporting education projects in the UK. The performance data project aims to provide analyses and data to help LEAs and schools to make more effective use of pupil performance data: www.fischertrust.orgperformance.htm.For more information about Champs: www.learntolearn.orgindex_uk.htm