The data mountain

16th January 1998 at 00:00
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 opportunitie s 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.

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