The data mountain

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh sees no endto the number-crunching.

A COMPUTER system for school management costs a lot of money. Make the choice that is right for you and your school and life becomes a lot easier. Get it wrong and you lumber the office staff with a permanent headache.

But how do you know which system to buy given that there are few opportunities to make comparisons? One answer is to start at the BETT educational technology show where, this year, some of the leading competing suppliers will be showing their latest products. An exhibition stand is not a good place to see a detailed demonstration, but there will be the chance to meet the people, and take in something of the feel of the organisations and their willingness to respond.

The cutting edge has to go forward, and is now aimed at the field of data collection, analysis and exchange. Education, over the past two years, has become all about measurements - test scores, attendance figures, benchmarks, added value, and the rest. Local authorities will soon be required to analyse school performance in the light of national figures, and to tell the Government how they propose to use data to identify those schools that are not up to scratch.

There are plans, too, to create a national database for pupils up to 14. For this purpose, every pupil will be given a unique pupil identifier (the lack of which has so far stymied any possibility of tracking pupils through their school lives). The result will be a huge warehouse of pupil data, with various pipelines going in and out of it, from and through schools, authorities and the various government agencies.

The data thus collected can be addressed and analysed in an almost infinite number of ways. The management information systems suppliers are clearly alive to the possibities that this opens up. SIMS already has its Quest module, which collects every public bit of data on school performance and allows for its screen presentation in a host of comparisons. One third of English authorities now have Quest, and in a recent letter to authorities, SIMS announced plans for various enhancements to the module that would make it more flexible and more useful, particularly in benchmarking.

SIMS is also beginning work on a new module called Pupil Performance Monitoring System, which will take advantage of the existence of the forthcoming national pupil database. John Warwick, a SIMS director, sees a near future in which "A lot of data is collected at pupil level and goes up the system to local authorities and the DFEE (Department for Education and Employment) where it may well be processed, benchmarked, value added, and then those results fed back down the system. We think that's the picture and we're developing our tools and software to deal with it."

Some of this, he points out, already exists. "We've got Assessment Manager which is constantly being developed, and is for holding pupil level data at the school. There are add-ons such as an Assessment Analysis module which will do things like value added, and has particularly been designed to help with issues such as target setting."

All of this will involve a great deal of data transfer. In the first instance, much of this will be done by disc or by existing electronic means. Eventually, though, the much heralded national grid for learning is expected to play its part in helping the data on its way.

Scotland is showing one way forward in the area of secure data exchange. DIALnet plc, with its Scottish subsidiary, DIALnet Scotland Ltd, has launched an initiative called the National Scottish Education Extranet (N-SEE) which provides, in the firm's words, "A totally secure environment for organisations in Scottish education to publish material, transfer files electronically and to share and communicate ideas all using standard Internet software and technology."

What it does, in effect, is provide for secure communication between users while at the same time giving the same users routes through the "firewall" to the World Wide Web, or to e-mail on the Internet. This project is being developed in conjunction with Phoenix First, the suppliers of management information systems for education in Scotland.

There are huge implications here, not least for heads and other senior managers. Even if a head finds a like-minded colleague to do all the necessary data handling and analysis, it is clear that those at the top level in schools will need to be sufficiently data literate to make sense of what they are being given, and to be able to sniff out what is valid from what is not. They, in turn, will have high expectations that what they get from their system - be it SIMS or anything else - will be reliable, intelligible, relevant and easy to incorporate into their decision-making. For decades, schools have fought against the unnecessary collection and storage of figures, and they will want to be reassured that what they are now being asked to do really will help them to be better teachers.

At the administrative level, tools for the basic tasks continue to appear and to be improved. DRS (Data and Research Services) has InfoScan for capturing data using a combination of optical mark reader, optical character recognition, barcode reading and image capture. Quadrant Facilities Management has a new support scheme for its computerised premises management system. Bromcom Computers continues to show how far its system of radio-linked laptop computers has progressed beyond its original basic function of attendance monitoring. Finally, senior managers in schools ought to know about the National Council for Educational Technology's Senior Managers Web site which keeps heads, principals and other senior teachers in touch with events via the Internet. David Keenliside of the NCET will provide a presentation on this at Olympia next Thursday (January 15) as part of the BETT seminar programme.

BETT Connections

SIMS Education Services Ltd stand 140

DIALnet plc stand 269

DRS plc stand 419

Quadrant Facilities Mgt stand 514

Bromcom Computers plc stand 125

NCET stand 545

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