WHEN it comes to deciding who should be given a day out of school to visit the BETT educational technology show in January, heads should realise that it is not just a techno-fest for ICT co-ordinators. In fact, there is a case to be made for putting the computer experts some way down the priority list.
That is because the computer has matured into a working tool that can help teachers, administrators and managers do their jobs more efficiently - and it is these people who need to understand not so much how the technology works, but what it can actually do.
The vast majority of schools rely on SIMS software for administrative purposes - it has been the market leader for years. The system, now absorbed into the Capita empire, was the first to be developed and, because it was designed by teachers, its relevance and flexibility made it an instant hit. But just as Britain paid the price for being the first country to industrialise when it also became the first country to see its infrastructure wear out, so too some SIMS customers look for the increased flexibility offered by newer arrivals in the marketplace.
It will be worth looking at Facility CMIS from CCM Software - a fully-fledged management information system, bidding for a share of the SIMS-dominated market. CCM products have been around for some time - its timetabling and options packages are popular with many schools. Facility CMIS offers access via the Web, and there is a welcoming page for the student who wants to check his or her attendance or test results.
Each of the main suppliers of school management software will be offering the means of using their systems remotely through the Web. Heads and teachers can look at attendance figures, test results and so on from home. Password protection, obviously, is going to be tight, so that the school can define exactly who can read what and who has the right to change the information. This is particularly important as, inevitably, parents and the pupils themselves gain varying levels of access to school data from home.
There are lots of management decisions waiting to be taken here - about, for example, whether it is right, or even possible, to allow easy e-mail contact between parents and individual teachers. Later on, as these products become established, schools may well completely rethink their home-school contacts.
What will be the place of the end-of-term school report if parents have already had a steady stream of up-to-date information, on demand, through their digital television? The BETT showis the place to start having these thoughts and making the initial contacts with suppliers.
Bromcom plc, which started 10 years ago with a sophisticated electronic registration package, has continued to ride the trend towards data collection, using its radio-linked folders as mark books as well as attendance registers. Now the firm offers parents Web access into school via its My Child at School package.
Heads and administrators may also be interested in the way that Bromcom is using the same facility to give education welfare officers an entry to school attendance data - a potential time-saver for them and the school.
Another Bromcom product with implications for administrators is EMA On-line, which is intended to handle the administration of the education maintenance allowance (paying students of 16-plus money to stay on at school). The scheme will make work for schools - attendance will have to be carefully tracked. Bromcom's product aims to take the hassle out of this.
Have a look, too, at products that can help with performance management - another process that could become paper-heavy. RM has Professional Portfolio - a software product to help teachers and managers keep track of the evidence needed for staff professional development.
Perhaps the crucial thing about visiting BETT is to focus on the particular needs of your own school. Any trade show - the Motor Show is the prime example - is a place of dreams. It is easy to be convinced that this or that product is just what is needed, even though you did not realise you ever had the problem it sets out to solve.
Look at simple, low-cost products that address particular needs. The optical mark-reader, a relatively elderly gadget that picks up the marks on a printed sheet and converts them into data in a computer, is still going strong, despite the existence of higher-tech electronic data-gathering devices. The most active
of the OMR suppliers is DRS;
its products are relatively
You need to plan your visit, but do not be too rigid: it is possible that you will find something welcome and yet unexpected. So plans must be flexible, and subject to last-minute change and cancellation - a bit like the train service that will get you to Kensington Olympia station.
The BETT show is at London Olympia from Wednesday, January 10 to Saturday, January 13.
Capita Education Services is at: www.capitaes.co.uk, BETT stand D20; Bromcom Computers plc is at: www.Bromcom.com, stand C20; CCM Software UK is at: www.facility.ie, stand B72, DRS Data and Research Services is at: www.drs.co.uk, stand Z34; RM plc is at: www.rm.com, stand E50