When schools in Manchester's Tameside enter pupils for examinations and receive results, they don't have to go through any laborious duplicated form-filling or send floppy discs backwards and forwards. The information is transmitted from school to examinations board via the Internet using a service called CampusConnect, run by British Telecom.
"It's speedier, particularly for results," says Paul Derwent, Tameside's education systems co-ordinator. It's also more secure - Campus calls its service "a walled garden" - and it is more accurate.
Paul Derwent likes the service because it offers a range of other useful facilities. Since last year, CampusConnect has been able to handle the transfer of financial reconciliation files, pupil records and statutory returns to and from schools. It is now working with 13 local education authorities, all the English and Welsh exam boards and some of the vocational boards. It hopes to do business with Scotland and Northern Ireland soon.
It also offers access to the Internet, e-mail and a facility that enables local authorities or exam boards to give schools access to Internet-style pages as a closed user group. Thus a local education authority could decide to "publish" pages available only to primary schools or pages restricted to headteachers. The North of England Examinations Board is publishing syllabuses and hoping to have examiners' reports, information on fees, computing systems etc and past papers available in future.
CampusConnect's main rival is DIALnet, which pioneered an exam entry and results system in 1985 in one authority and offered it to the rest in 1990. The two companies now offer very similar services and are working with SIMS, the leading provider of administrative software to education, to ensure that exam information can be integrated into local authority systems. Many schools and authorities can use SIMS to find out what proportion of students got which GCSE grade or how the school performed in particular subjects compared with previous years. They can also provide the Department for Education and Employment with performance indicators for league tables.
All the academic and vocational boards, apart from the Scottish ones, use DIALnet. Like CampusConnect, its service handles entries, results, projected grades, coursework marks and modular entries and results. It offers a number of communications packages such as DEPoT, which allows access to the Internet and a "shopping area" that enables schools to export orders from their computers to educational suppliers. DIALnet now supplies services to 60 per cent of secondary schools and more than 200 further education and sixth-form colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A handful of Scottish schools are using it for exam entries up to Higher and it is being piloted for vocational courses.
In West Sussex all secondary schools relay entries to exam boards and receive results using DEPoT. These are automatically imported into their administrative system (SIMS) which they can then use to analyse the data for reports to governors and parents. The advantages of DIALnet's system are a fast turnaround and reliability, says John Masters, head of the West Sussex SIMS Computer Administration Support Team, a DIALnet Resource Unit. He was impressed with the willingness of the company to work closely with education.
The past year has been the best in terms of speedy communication of examination entries and results, says John Masters. Previously, the system tended to jam solid when results were released.
CampusConnect has also seen an improvement in the speed of its services. Since last October, it has been possible for results to be sent to schools' computers in a coded form the day before publication. The next day, the company announces a key which the schools can use to decode the information.
Though DIALnet began as the leader in this two-horse race, CampusConnect is a determined competitor. Both companies hint heavily that new services for schools administration will soon be announced, but both are keeping their cards very close to their chests.
* CampusConnect Tel: 0345 678867 DIALnet Tel: 0121 624 5050