Improving schools: Many happy returns

The headteacher stands up in morning assembly. "Well now, boys and girls, whose birthday is it today?" It's not unusual for primary heads to ask this question as one way of making schools more personal. But I'm sure many of them would like to maximise this personal effect by knowing in advance who the birthday boys and girls are. Few, however, are likely to go hunting through all the pupils' enrolment files for the details - unless of course they are in one of Northern Ireland's 540-plus primary schools that have been equipped with a management information system (MIS).

If you have such a system, you will be able to find out almost anything you ask it - provided it has been fed the information. A headteacher could have a pupil birthday list every month, every week, even every day. All you have to do is provide the system with the right information, then ask it the appropriate questions.

OK, big deal! What's so good about a computerised birthday list? Not a lot, I admit, but wait for it. There are so many more things that management information systems can offer busy school managers. And in Northern Ireland, there's a wealth of experience of such systems that is not just bringing benefits to the administration of schools but is also beginning to affect curriculum matters - for the better.

The Computerised Local Administration of Schools System (CLASS) is an implementation of the widely known SIMS management information system. In Northern Ireland, all primary and secondary schools with more than 89 pupils are being equipped with MIS facilities, in a programme that began in 1989 and now covers 780 of the 886 schools targeted.

The philosophy of the programme has been uncompromising in its intent to empower schools to improve themselves. As the programme's director, Tom McMullan, says: "Real change can only come from within schools. External incentives or pressure, or indeed scrutiny, can have only limited impact and the ultimate goal of CLASS must be to provide schools with the in-house information needed for them to engage in self-improvement."

So what does the system offer? One of its most seductive features is the device of management alerts. What you ask the system to provide, it churns out for you automatically. The birthdays lists are one example. Reports that you don't need to remember to ask for (and in some cases don't even need to read!) can be produced from a wide range of the management modules.Once you have set the alert conditions, it's a bit like having a sixth sense.

The alerts can be routine. For example: "Tell me at the end of each month which pupils are due for special needs assessment in the next month." Or: "Tell me when our resources expenditure reaches 80 per cent of the allocated budget." In a curious sense, such reports don't need to be read; they simply initiate the course of action you have prepared in the event that they should arise. Perhaps these can be dismissed as administrative functions, but the system has the potential for a much more important area: the management of the school's teaching.

Take for example the value-added module, a facility that enables a school to monitor the performance of pupils in external tests including key stage tests for the national curriculum. As a truly in-house report - it will not be splashed all over the media as the league tables are - this enables schools to pinpoint relative strengths and weaknesses that might be attributable, for example, to teaching. If class 3B is consistently below standard in an aspect of maths, is there a problem that might be solved by staff training?

It will help analysis of curriculum coverage to compare the test data information with what has been taught. It will be possible to set alerts which will initiate reviews in cases where pupils or whole classes do not get the results that their profiles indicate they should have attained.

Many will of course argue that headteachers and other senior school managers should seek out these kinds of issues, trends and effects as part of their normal work. Clearly, this is true. The reality is that these people, like everyone else in the day-to-day running of schools, are exceptional ly busy in dealing with ad hoc issues, so that they find it very hard to be pro-active.

Yes, the good deputy head will get a niggling feeling that the level of disruption to class 3B's schooling - arising from a variety of causes such as teacher illness, in-service training, school trips, medical visits etc - is getting to be a bit much. But does he or she have the time to analyse the situation, to identify which subjects are being hardest hit or which substitute teacher could be used most effectively to shore up the coherence of 3B's lessons? Probably not, but a typical CLASS alert could notify the problem automatically. It could also provide a breakdown of the pattern of disruption which would enable a busy manager to make relatively informed decisions - one of which might be a clampdown on what is causing the disruption.

In the same vein, will a busy deputy head in charge of induction, for example, always be aware of difficulties that his or her newest colleague might be having? Perhaps not, but the CLASS "incident log" could be asked to draw attention to any pattern of incidents that might indicate a particular probationer's difficulties.

The potential for management information systems in schools, and particularly the management alerts, is beginning to be appreciated more and more as the CLASS system establishes itself. There can be little doubt that such systems are set to become an important and pervasive feature of school management and, as Tom McMullan puts it, "There will be principals who will be able to ignore MIS systems. Such principals will be operating in environments that have unlimited resources, no accountability and little external scrutiny!"

John Gardner is director of the School of Education, Queen's University, Belfast

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