Remember physics at school? Just as you were getting the hang of it, it turned into maths and galloped off over the horizon again. I get the same feeling now about computerised school management systems. Here was I just beginning to understand the language of administration packages, computerised registration, pupil databases and the like, and what do I find? That this whole area of life is about to take off into cyberspace, presenting me with concepts that may well challenge my ageing noddle well beyond its limits.
Two related things seem to be in the offing. First, there is clearly going to be a huge step forward in the next few years in the area of electronic data transfer. According to the Government's White Paper Connecting the Learning Society, within four years most of the flow of information between government and schools will be electronic. Then there is the inexorable convergence of what we have separately thought of as "curriculum IT" and "admin IT".
Teachers, and eventually pupils and their parents, will increasingly want to be able to peer from the classroom and from their homes into bits of the school's central management system, both to retrieve information and add to it. The advent of the National Grid for Learning will speed up both of these developments. We are close to the reality of a pupil and her parents being able, from home, to check on how her grades in science have progressed over the year, then going on to look at forthcoming topics and homework. The whole operation will not only involve electronic communication but will drive a coach and horses through the distinction between administration and curriculum. The management software suppliers have, unsurprisingly, spent a lot of time looking at this future and judging how best to serve it. One answer comes from RM Management Solutions (formerly Key Solutions). Next month the company will launch what it describes as a "new generation of integrated, year 2000 compliant, LEA and schoolsoftware".
At the centre of the new package is Integris, which manages staff and student data. To this can be added modules for attendance, curriculum management, finance and, perhaps most important, assessment.
The claim from RM is that the whole is much more integrated than are its existing products, and that as a result it becomes much easier to interrogate and to use data from the different areas of the system. Important for the future, e-mail and Internet access are available without leaving the system, and users - staff andor pupils at management discretion - can reach parts of the system from their PCs at home.
The new Assessment Manager, particularly, which is an update of an existing product, seems likely to offer heads and governors a powerful tool for making a whole host of comparisons - one student with others across a range of subjects; one subject with another; one subject over time, and so on - and to present these as tables or graphs in ways that have real meaning. This product will be available to schools separately, for use alongside whatever administration software the school already has. Existing pupil data can be imported into it.
So far, this new RMMS software is being "beta" tested which means that it has gone out to be evaluated and tested in a number of local authority IT centres, but has not yet arrived in schools. The launch will be on April 2.