Big brother is already here...now it's time to get the stories straight

7th September 2001 at 01:00
The way we store and share information about pupils is changing as government policy starts to bite. In the first of a new series on school administration Gerald Haigh presents the lowdown on what questions should be asked as well as those preparations that it would be wise to put in place

This is the academic year in which school management by computer comes of age. By next spring, the DFES Information Management Strategy (IMS), should be well on the way to achieving its stated vision that "essential management information will be routinely held, shared and used electronically by all schools". Electronic management of information will be part of day to day school business, and will help to raise educational standards. Schools will soon be equipped to transfer data electronically not just by floppy disk but by Internet connection.

At this point, though, it's important to take on board one or two acronyms of a kind that are increasingly being bandied around to the point where it is becoming too embarrassing to stand up in a meeting and ask what on earth they mean. This may be your last opportunity to find out discreetly, before it's too late, the meanings of CBDS, PLASC and UPN. The story goes like this.

For the policy of easy electronic data transfer to work, every school will have to store the same basic pupil data in the same format, hence the notion of the "Common Basic Data Set" (CBDS), which is at the core of the policy. The exact ingredients of the CBDS are currently being determined. Schools will be able to add whatever pupil details they want to the CBDS for their own purposes as well as the data requirements set out by government. There will then be a huge national database covering every child in the system. But instead of all of it being stored on one giant whirring hard disk in Whitehall, it will be spread around the thousands of hard disks in school offices around the country. This form of distribution makes it very easy for ministers or officials to get at.

The principal means by which the Government receives data from the CBDS is the Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) which is none other than our old school-friend "Form Seven" in expanded electronic guise. The next PLASC, in January 2002, is going to be a full, compulsory census using computer data transmitted electronically. By modifying or expanding the required contents of the CBDS, andor the PLASC, the Government will be able to have at its fingertips any pupil information it decides it needs. It will have a direct line to information at school level, making it easier to do all manner of analyses and comparisons.

The "Unique Pupil Number" (UPN) is essential, if data is to be stored right down at individual pupil level, so that there is never any confusion between one "Darren Smith" and countless others. The whole strategy is part of a "bureaucracy busting" effort by the Government so that data can flow quickly and, crucially, there should be no need for the same information to be asked for more than once by different agencies of local or national government.

What does all this mean for schools? For many, in practice, it won't be as frightening as it sounds. Most schools already use the software of one of the main players in the field of management information systems. Unsurprisingly, these suppliers are well ahead of the game in meeting national requirements, in fact they were involved in advising the Government in the first place. So if you use SIMS, or Phoenix, or Facility CMIS from CCM, RM Management Solutions, indeed any of the recognised suppliers of school management software then they're going to be very interested in making sure that you're equipped to do the necessary tasks. Quite a few of the smaller management information system suppliers are signed up to an Interoperability Agreement which commits them to adopting common standards for the transfer of data. If you are a state school and your pupil data is still in a filing cabinet, or on an ordinary database that isn't covered by the Interoperability Agreement you need to do something quickly - independent schools aren't currently affected by the IMS strategy, but may be in future.

Despite the need to move forward do not move so fast into the hardware and software market that you don't have time to investigate what's on offer. Increasingly these days, there's a choice of suppliers, and one relatively new player in the UK market claims that some schools are taking advantage of the IMS Strategy to look again at what they are currently using. The IMS Strategy pages of the DFES website has a list of Interoperability Agreement suppliers, with their website addresses. You also need to make sure your computers are good enough not only for this year's demands, but for the future. For one thing, you're going to need good Internet connectivity for administration, in addition to your software needs to cover the curriculum. Pupils' performance data becomes more and more crucial to the setting of targets and the planning of your curriculum. And you'll eventually have to ensure that teachers have good access, including remote access from home to the administration system, so they can see and enter pupil data, make comparisons, analyse strengths and weaknesses and study trends.

There are clear management and training implications in all of this. The worst case scenario is of a school swamped by data that teachers don't understand and can't adequately analyse, with more of it arriving by the hour from feeder schools, the local authority and the Government.

Wauton Samuel amp; Co Tel: 020 8691 6622 www.wautonsamuel.co.uk

RM Tel: 01235 826000 www.rm.comproductsmanagement Bromcom Tel:020 8695 8000 www.bromcom.com

Phoenix First Tel: 0172 2326810 www.phoenix-software.co.uk

Capita-SIMS www.capitaes.co.uk

CCM Software (Facility CMIS) Tel: 01332 660555 www.ccmsoftware.com

DFES IMS Tel: 0207 273 5296 www.dfee.gov.ukims

GOVERNORS' PLAN OF ACTION BEFORE CHRISTMAS 2001

* Make sure you understand the implications of the IMS Strategy for your school now and in the future. Don't be afraid to ask questions that seem naive * Check with your local authority andor your IMS software supplier, whether the computers you have for administration will at least do what will be expected of them this school year. Remember that it's not a good idea to have a computer running to the outside limit ofits capabilities * Make sure that teachers and administration staff are trained to do what's needed, especially for the January PLASC.

* Start changing the mind set. In the words of TES ICT consultant Lynne Taylor, "If an administration job takes a long time and we're doing it manually, then there must be an IT solution."

* Think about appointing a data manager in the longer term. If data is to be made useful, and requests for data properly responded to, then it has to be managed.

* Consider whether it's time to review the arrangement with your existing IMS supplier. There is a good choice of software on the market and this may be the time to see what other suppliers can offer. The DFES IMS website has a list of the two dozen or so suppliers signed up to the Interoperability Agreement. Some are listed above.

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