How can we get teachers familiar with computing systems when incompatible computers performing unrelated functions is so rife? Gerald Haigh investigates
From the earliest days of computers in school, almost to the present day, there has been a clear distinction between using computers for the curriculum, and using them to help with running the school. So different were the two evolutionary tacks that they produced different and largely incompatible sets of hardware. Today, even in a very ICT-aware primary school, you may well find the most recent Archimedes machines in the classrooms and Pentium PCs in the office and the head's room.
The reasons are historical, and to do with the selection of classroom machines that Government advisers believed appropriate for schools in the early Eighties. The underlying thinking is clear - classroom work is different from administration, and there is no reason at all why a teacher should ever need to touch the office computer.
There have been some far-sighted attempts to bridge the gap. More than one firm has, in the past, produced basic classroom management software for the Archimedes for example, and some teachers have found it very helpful.
However, it's fair to say that such systems have suffered partly through being ahead of their time, and partly because of being separate from the main school database. The people who devised and used these systems, though, could see then what is obvious now - that there is a need for software which will help the teacher keep and use classroom data such as marks, grades and termly summaries.
Now, though, the issue is very much alive and topical to the point where it will soon become urgent. The drive is to persuade schools that they should have whole-school computer networks, with parts of the admin system accessible from classrooms, staffrooms or heads of department offices.
In line with this, the main administration software systems now have modules for managing classroom assessment data - storing, summarising and presenting it in ways which are useful and understandable.
The relevance of these extends well beyond the senior management team. Roger Plant, of Capita Education (SIMS), says of its Assessment Manager software: "Apart from timetabling, it's been the module that's caused the most classroom teacher training activity to take place."
Importantly, classroom teachers obviously need to be convinced that the comparisons, targets, graphs and value-added figures that something like Assessment Manager will produce are actually useful. Bob Jelley, a Warwickshire primary head who is just starting to look at this software with his colleagues, accepts that teachers already have a lot to do, and that there is a need to convince them that using assessment software is going to be useful. One argument, he suggests, goes like this: "Up to now, you've had your big black mark book. Obviously, it contains information that could be usefully presented in tables or graphs. So why don't you do it? Well, it's not because it's a bad idea. The problem is that it's complicated and time-consuming. If it could be done at the touch of a button, then you would do it."
He feels that a teacher may well appreciate being able to look with a child - perhaps with his or her parents - at individual progress and targets, clearly presented, and showing comparisons with school and national standards.
"But," he goes on, "this is a quantum leap. You're not sure what people will find useful once they have the technology." He is very sure, though, that when training takes place, teachers have to keep trainers focused on the school's assessment policy - "the system has to do what we want it to do".
Roger Plant agrees - although he does feel that tomorrow's classroom teacher will have to understand some of the statistical principles behind the bar charts and distribution tables they are looking at. "Do they know what a regression line is? If they see something called added value, do they have a feel for how it is being calculated?" At the same time, he says: "If I point to a dot on a chart, I am careful to say that this is not a statistical intersection of two values. It is a child."
Underlining this, he feels that training should not be just left to ICT teams. "What this type of activity is doing is drawing together ICT teams and curriculum advisers. The advisers can add greater recognition of the strategic value of what is being done, and take an active part in implementation. We have some schools now where teachers are realising that they can use this mass of information to guide learning - it genuinely can be used to help teachers set individual and global targets."
How, in practice, will classroom teachers be introduced to the use of ICT for their administrative tasks? The most likely route, given SIMS' market domination, is that they will be trained to use relevant parts of SIMS' Assessment Manager, though other modular systems also have assessment data management functions. Another possibility is that when the TTA's programme of training teachers in ICT gets under way, parts of it will cover the principles of using ICT for administration. Just how detailed this might be is not clear at the moment - the training has to cover a lot in a short time.
Another possibility is that teachers who see no immediate prospect of encountering something like Assessment Manager (or, indeed, who want to supplement it in some way) would find it useful to learn how to manipulate names and numbers on a database, or the spreadsheet applications which come with the computer or laptops delivered to school. If no-one in the school has this basic knowledge, try asking the governors, as these packages are very common in business offices.
Where training is formally delivered, it is important that heads and teachers are bold enough to keep ownership of the session - to ask all the time what the system will do "for us, in our school". A school which is confident about its assessment policy, for example, and has had it approved by Ofsted and the authority should not allow ICT trainers to knock it off track. The approach is: "We're good at assessment. We have the policy we want. Show us how this system can make it work more efficiently."
Although it may not always be possible, a school which is embarking on assessment software training ought at least to ask whether the training team will include curriculum advisers or advisory teachers, or seconded classroom teachers as well as computer experts. Just asking the question is a reminder to an authority of where the priorities should lie.
Meanwhile, if we really want our classroom teachers to work with the main administration system, the following principles should apply.
There has to be enough hardware - networked computers within easy reach - or enough laptops for teachers to be able to work on them in their own time. If laptops are used, some consideration might be given to how data is to move between the laptop and the central system. Bromcom Computers addresses this by radio link, for example.
There has to be step-by-step training which constantly refers back to teachers' needs and preferences. As well as thinking about those teachers who are worried about basic computer literacy, the training should not assume that teachers are already confident with the basic statistics of handling and presenting assessment data. Badly conceived, comparisons can be misleading or even distressingly inaccurate.
At local authority and school level, three knowledge areas have to go forward hand in hand - knowledge of the curriculum, knowledge of computer software and knowledge of the principles of classroom assessment. Training must always recognise that the most valuable data arises from the teacher's personal and professional understanding of the child.
Assessment data illuminates and extends this. But it does not replace it.
Bromcom Computers 0181 461 3737 www.bromcom.com Capita Education Services 01234 838080 www.sims.co.uk