Schools are drowning in performance data. The problem is not storing it but making sense of it. Without the tools and the skills to sort it out, it is like having a 1,000 litre vat of wine and not a label to study, nor a glass from which to drink.
At the most basic level, for example, a department head wants to be able to sit before a screen with a pupil and say: "Based on all your grades and tests, this is where you were last year; this is where you are now. If we project that trend forward like this (click, click) then you see that you should end up with GCSE Grade C. If, however, we set some targets for improvement in this element of the course where you're weaker (click, click), then the projection looks like this (click, click) and you will end up with Grade B. Go and make a start and we'll take another look at the end of next term."
It is a powerful approach and many schools, including primaries, are making it work. And by extension, local authorities and central government can use the same techniques.
In response to this sort of demand, administration and management software suppliers are working either to produce new tools for analysis or to add new analytical features to their existing suites. Headteachers and senior staff, therefore, should closely question software salesmen not just about the collection and handling of assessment data, but also about how easily it can be used to help parents, pupils, teachers and local authorities in target setting andcurriculum planning.
RM Management Solutions (formerly Key Solutions) has made considerable improvements to the assessment data analysis of both its schools administration system, Integris, and to its local authority administration system, Centris. Paul Metcalfe, the senior product manager at RM, claims:
"This is the most potent range of analytical tools that's available."
Capita Education Services, supplier of SIMS, has added new features to its assessment software: one new element is Assessment Analysis. "It enables teachers to calculate progression lines from any data they hold and from that to predict the achievement of pupils," says its director Berni Martin. "You can also set targets and introduce a challenge."
Another important player in the field of schools administration software is Phoenix First. Although not showing at Bett this year - the firm says it is busy selling and supporting its products - it is still extending the base for its modular administration system which is proving particularly successful in Scotland.
EduTrack, from E-Link Services is another new product aimed at helping schools use assessment data to identify trends and areas for improvement. This takes assessment data and presents it in a range of alternative ways, so that teachers can look at the progress of groups and individuals within or across a range of subjects. The director, Roger Way, says: "It is designed to be particularly useful to senior staff who have to track the progress of pupils on a regular basis."
For the classroom teacher, assessment involves not only lots of marking, but using basic marks to create grades and summaries, and also then transferring the information to a central database. This is an area which is being addressed in interesting ways by Bromcom computers. Some years ago it pioneered the two-way radio transmission of data between the school office computer and the teachers' desks, focusing at that time on school registration. This is still a core activity for the company, but it has been quick to see the possibility of similarly transferring assessment data. Its Electronic GradeBook is already used by some schools. To this has now been added the Bromcom MarkBook. Teachers use it like a private markbook for daily tests, homework marks and other notes. The software then assists them in turning these running marks into termly or half-termly grades, which can be transmitted by radio link to the school's central database.
Facility Systems is another player in school management systems. After working in the higher education sector - and building up an impressive user base - it is offering schools CMIS, which is described as "not just a school admin system, rather an integrated management system". It is, says its director, David Collery, "a real alternative" (by implication, to SIMS, RM Management Systems, et al). This is a serious company with a track record, and well worth a look at if you are in that market.
nother innovation that increasingly interests secondary schools is the use of swipe cards to pay for school meals. Being able to do away with cash tills and dinner tickets - "cashless catering" - is a powerful incentive. There are extra benefits such as schools being able to keep track of exactly what it is that children are eating.
Chartwells, a major contractor in schools catering, has a system installed in a number of schools. At Bett you can see the Impact system from Cunningham Cashless Systems, which makes the point that its cards have no cash value - the credit is held on a central computer. Other systems have smart cards that are electronically loaded with money. This can be a problem should they be lost -although the card can be cancelled it takes time to do it. Perhaps the lesson here is that schools considering cashless catering need to know that there are these differences of principle, and not just of detail, between systems.
Perhaps the most important advice is to avoid convincing yourself that you really do need the top-of-the-range computer systems, and you could just about manage it if you cut some basics from the budget. If it doesn't make sense of all that data, do you really need it?
* BETT CONNECTIONS Bromcom Computers stand C20 0181 461 3737 www.bromcom.com
Capita Education Services stand D20 01234 83808 www.sims.co.uk
Cunningham Cashless Systems stand G34 0121 449 6161 www.cunninghams.co.uk
E-Link Services stand SW58 0181 502 3050 http:e-link.co.uk Facility Systems stand B82
0115 978 6556 www.facility.co.uk
Phoenix First 01722 326810 RM Management Solutions stand D50
01235 826868 www.rm.com