Is all well with school management ICT (also known as MIS - management information systems)? Before you decide, consider these two statements from different experts in schools ICT.
Martin Ripley, head of e-strategy and innovation at QCA, is a frank critic of the lack of visionary drive along the path to e-learning. "Steve Jobs, at Apple, put 90 designers on creating the iPod," he says. "Think what we could have in education if we could have just half of that number working on innovation."
Andy Jackson, responsible for supporting school management systems in Birmingham local authority, reports, by contrast, a repeated complaint from schools about a particular function of management software. "If only someone could crack the dinner money problem - with a system that links to attendance," he says.
It's a stark illustration of a gulf between the vision of what ICT can achieve for schools and the reality of what's available.
There's a realisation that it's time for a breakthrough into something more exciting, and Martin's not the only one saying it. The feeling is that the history of computers in schools has led, if not into a dead end (that's putting it too strongly), then to a place from where it's difficult to see, let alone reach, the future. As the cockney song says: "With a ladder and some glasses, you could see to 'ackney Marshes, if it wasn't for the 'ouses in between."
Many of the obstacles to overcome - "the 'ouses in between" - are explained in Becta's highly significant review of value for money in school systems - School Management Information Systems and Value for Money: A review with recommendations for addressing the suboptimal features of the current arrangements (Becta, June 2005).
This describes the position in which schools find themselves. In short, they're spending a lot of money on management systems - pound;180 million a year according to Becta, pound;55 million of it on support - and being sold short in significant ways. One cause lies with the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and its demands for data, the costs of which currently go, via ICT suppliers, to the schools. There's also the historical problem of an overwhelmingly dominant MIS supplier (Capita ES), which has called the tune for a long time.
Martin Ripley summed up his perspective on the review in TES Online in October. "In plain speak, it means schools are paying over the odds for services that are not much use," he said. Both parts of that statement are debatable, of course.
If a school knows its system thoroughly, and runs it to the extent of its capabilities (admittedly, a very big "if") then perhaps it's not that expensive. Andy, who is perfectly willing to give suppliers a hard time when necessary, is sympathetic to them on costs, suggesting that to drive them down too hard could compromise research and development.
"If you compare a school with a budget of, say, pound;7 million, with a business of the same size, the IT costs for a system that meets all business needs don't look unreasonable," he says.
That's especially so when the cost of developing systems to meet DfES demands for statutory returns is taken into account. The suppliers have always been aggrieved by this, and it's inevitable that schools pay for this in the end. Among Becta's intentions is that the DfES will tackle this by creating proper contracts with suppliers.
Whether management systems, in Martin Ripley's terms, "aren't much use" is something else. At one level the systems have revolutionised administration - managing class lists, attendance figures, exam entries and statistical returns to government. And because (if properly understood and managed) they save time and improve the quality of management information, they should lead to better teaching and learning.
In fact, according to Andy Jackson, the systems are flaky - cheap and cheerful. "These companies are not world-class players, like Microsoft," he says.
Consequently - and this is by no means confined to one brand - there is a constant stream of fixes, upgrades and patches. As a result, schools never reach a point where they can forget the system is there - or where they can improve their use of it.
There's a knock-on effect, too, for local authority support teams. In an ideal world, they would be carrying out developmental work with schools, making sure that they're using management systems productively.
In practice, teams spend a significant proportion of their time fire-fighting on technical issues, says Dr Stephen Lucey, executive director at Becta. If these were resolved and the software was improved it would "free up a tremendous resource".
For Martin Ripley, this means that even the best management systems are doing little more than making it easier for schools to do what they have always done - keep track of performance data and finance, send figures off to the Government, enter pupils for exams and so on.
"That's useful," he says. "But what headteachers need to be thinking about is the way in which technology changes learning. What it means if a child can put half a term's geography course online and work at their own pace, or if the head of maths can make up his own mind when to put the top set in for GCSE, or if a child can move work backwards and forwards between home and school. And what happens to the role of the teacher when all this happens."
For Martin, this is about a notion of choice - and here there's a difference of emphasis. Becta uses "choice" in the sense of freedom to choose the software - the brand of management system for example. It intends to make it easier to exercise that kind of choice.
Martin feels that in an ideal world schools shouldn't be worrying about the brand of software or the detail of its operation. For him, choice is to do with decisions about how tomake use of the information available. "If I go to a cash machine I don't want to know what kind of operating system it's using," he says.
This banking analogy comes up often in discussions about management systems. In one sense, it's about hosting. The information the bank holds isn't looked after in the branch at all. What matters is that it is available in the branch and can be manipulated there. Maybe that's the way education should go - perhaps with authorities working together at regional level to host data.
Becta's Dr Lucey hints at this when he says: "Schools really don't want the hassle of running their management information systems. Broadband opens up a host of possibilities and it's timely for local authorities to think about not just replacing today's systems, but also to think laterally about what models are appropriate for the future."
RM and Pearson Phoenix are going down the route of remote hosting, and Capita already has local authority customers hosting school data. In Wales, Cynnal authority (Anglesey and Gwynedd) runs all the data centrally for 157 schools, some of which are too small to have full-time administration staff.
A web-based system, such as Capita's Sims.net, opens up many possibilities of this kind. There are questions, of course, notably about the quality and reliability of broadband, and it's clear that Capita sees remote hosting as one option for the future, rather than a complete answer.
What does all this mean for headteachers? First, you should make sure you are aware of what Becta is proposing and doing about improving the service to schools from suppliers. Similarly, you need to know about the QCA's plans for online assessment. If you're in the market for any kind of management software, visit the Becta and QCA stands at BETT first. Read their information and talk to them - especially before you spend anything.
Review your infrastructure. Do you have an up-to-date, robust and comprehensive network, ready for whatever's coming in the next few years? Do you have a thought-out programme for providing teachers and students with portable devices? If not, those are priorities.
Is your pupil performance data live? Can your infrastructure and software make it live in the short term?
Dr Lucey says: "Real-time data, rather than batch processing of data, is critical. The teacher in the classroom needs to know the progress there and then, just as we expect to see our bank details. It's all perfectly possible."
Make sure that staff are confident with the principles of understanding and handling pupil data. Dr Lucey says: "One of the key priorities is around skilling up the whole institution in terms of its maturity on how it uses data in relation to teaching and learning. This isn't just the individual teacher in the classroom, it's a whole-school approach."
And make sure that you're using your systems to the full. In many schools, that in it itself will require a significant training project. Management systems are a large, expensive resource and it's worth spending time to ensure that yours is doing all it can to live up to its claim of providing information that will enable you to improve teaching and learning.
If Becta's work with the DfES and the suppliers is effective, your support team will have more time to help you make best use of what you have.
Finally, before you decide to rush out to buy a niche management product - that's one that typically does just one job, such as monitoring behaviour, managing truancy or tracking pupil performance - pay a visit to your main supplier andor your local support team and ask about how the two will work together.
Two errors are disturbingly frequent: the niche product cannot freely exchange pupil data with the main system; and the main system can already do the task.
* For a guide to e-assessment see Web Extras (www.tes.co.ukonline)