Are we ready for parents to watch our lessons by webcam?

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Schools to give families online access by 2010, but experts say staff need much more training

As secondaries around the country prepare for "real-time online reporting", one leading head has warned that schools should take the process one step at a time and not expect too much too soon.

Jane Lees, the new president of the Association of School and College Leaders, spoke as all secondaries are expected this term to prepare to give parents electronic access to their children's school records. She has previously been running one of 21 pilots for the new technology.

Ministers say making information on attendance, behaviour, progress, attainment and special needs available to parents online or through emails and text messages will improve performance.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, has previously stated that all secondaries must provide information in these five key areas by 2010, and primaries will be required to offer the same two years later.

Later this month, Becta, the Government's agency for educational technology, will publish figures showing 68 per cent of secondary school websites already provide information such as calendars of events, but this is a far cry from the personalised information it wants schools to provide.

A Becta survey of more than 1,400 parents last month found only 15 per cent were told about their child's progress at least once a month. Only 8 per cent said they are kept informed using the internet, emails and text messages.

Mrs Lees is headteacher of Hindley High School at Wigan, Greater Manchester, one of the pilot schools. It has been developing its information systems and software since January, and by the end of this month, parents of Year 7 pupils can access information from the school's management information system in four areas. The process could be complete for all parents by the end of 2009, although there have been challenges along the way.

"There are massive implications for the training of teachers and parents and data protection," says Mrs Lees. "Parents will have passwords and be accessing the systems, but we will not know where from and whether those passwords will be secure. We have also been having problems with just how much information the software allows parents to view at any one time, as you don't always want it to be known in real-time. But it is worth doing - heads shouldn't be put off. Take it one step at a time and create a system suitable for your school."

One school that Becta holds up as an example of good practice is Cardinal Wiseman Technology College in Birmingham. It has been pioneering real-time reporting for three years, guided by assistant head John McGowan, long before the Government caught on. Around 200 out of 600 sets of parents regularly log into the school site to find information on attendance, punctuality, behaviour, timetable, grades and progress. Annual reporting is supplemented with regular online reports.

Exam results have shot up over the same period, from 22 per cent getting five top-grade GCSEs in 2005 to 44 per cent this year.

Becta claims this is down to using technology to engage parents, but Mr McGowan is more modest.

"We've made a big improvement," he said, "but you cannot identify one particular thing that has made the difference. But what online reporting has made us do is look more closely at our recording and tracking systems and made them easier to understand, because we know the parents are reading it.

"In doing that, it has been easier for the school management to understand the data and identify children who are falling behind and do something about it."

Mr McGowan said providing parents with figures and targets online was clearly "not enough," but it made it easier for them to have a meaningful discussion with staff.

He is aware of headteachers' concerns and said: "I've not seen scepticism towards the principle, but I know a lot of schools are worried about the amount of work they will have to do in developing systems." he said. "It can be a little daunting."

Some heads are unconcerned by the 2010 deadline. Dennis Richards, head of St Aidan's CofE School at Harrogate, North Yorkshire, said: "We are still trying to get our teachers to word process their school reports.

"It's a mistake to set particular deadlines because we are only going to do this when we can show it's going to be better. You can't do a lot if your staff aren't with you.

"We will be engaging staff in a debate, but not bashing them around the head with feelings of incompetence."

There is also some debate surrounding what kind of information schools should provide to parents.

Professor Stephen Heppell, a government adviser and education technology expert, said: "The Government is obsessed by incrementation, but parents care about their children's wider development.

"Technology must be used to create a three-way dialogue between teachers, parents and pupils and give human and verbal information as well as statistical facts.

"In terms of software and systems the channel from parents into schools is not really developed yet."

What technology promises parents

Watching the markers

In theory, parents could watch their children's exam papers being marked in real-time. Online marking of papers that have been scanned is now widespread for GCSE and A-level. In theory, parents could tap into the system and watch the marking taking place.

Virtual lesson observations

The technology is already available for parents to watch their children's lessons through a webcam.

"This is technologically possible," said schools IT expert Miles Berry, "but there would be some real issues for child protection and privacy, and the unions might have something to say on behalf of teachers. Pupils might also be reluctant to participate in the class if their parents are watching."

Digital spies in children's exercise books:

Laptops and handheld units that act like "virtual exercise books" could be monitored by an intelligent system which tells parents and teachers what activity is taking place in them. If children have not written anything for a while, for example, an alert would be sent out to their parents.

"The system would analyse the work done and send a report back, says Miles Berry. "It sounds a bit big brother, but it is possible."

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