Gerald Haigh looks at an information management system for schools, which takes away all the hassle
Do you have an information management system in your school? Of course, nearly everybody does. But do you know where it is? Does it sit in a computer in the secretary's room? Is it in a network server?
More to the point, how do you get access to it? Do you need to go and talk to the secretary? Or can you reach it from your computer in the classroom, or even at home?
Most systems allow you - or other interested people, such as parents - at least some password-protected access from outside, via the internet, and it's clear that this is a promising way forward.
Now one manufacturer - Pearson Education, known for some years as supplier of the Pearson Phoenix MIS - is taking a bold step by going to a system that's entirely web based. It's service, Pearson Phoenix e1, can be reached via a web browser from any web-enabled device - a network computer in school, your own computer at home, your PDA (personal digital assistant, or handheld computer), your mobile phone or an internet cafe anywhere on the globe.
There are two other innovatory ingredients in this Pearson package. One is the integration into e1 of a learning management system, so that the whole becomes a combined management and curriculum tool. The other is that the system is remotely hosted. That's to say the data, instead of sitting on a server in school, is with a web hosting service - in this case, Energis.
"Having a third party hosting the service removes the technological burden from the user, who no longer needs technicians, or all that worry about installation," explains Pearson Education's Roger Plant. "In fact, what we're delivering for our customers isn't a product but a service."
The whole package is bound to be attractive to heads, most of whom would rather spend time and resources on children and the curriculum, and so will look for a management information system that's easy to engage with and comes up with the necessary data with as little fuss as possible. One who's an early adopter is John d'Abbro, head of New Rush Hall in Redbridge, a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
It's a remarkable place, where there's a palpable level of commitment to the needs of children who are, essentially, desperate to be understood and to feel that someone cares about them.
"If you've got a very insecure view of yourself, learning is a real challenge," says John.
Many of his pupils arrive fizzing with frustration, to the point where sometimes they have to be physically, but reassuringly, restrained. "Our response to the child is not how dare he speak like that to me but - OK, he's said that to me, now what can we do to take him forward from that position," says Gary Lefley, head of the secondary age group at the school.
The school has some remarkable success stories - detailed on its excellent promotional video, which is probably more child centred and down to earth than any other you're likely to see - pupil after pupil faces up to past problems and future hopes. "My work was fine," says one child. "It was the way I conducted myself that was causing problems for staff."
Academic value-added is high, as is the record of returning children to mainstream either part time or full time. Against that background it's not surprising that John wants a management information system that will give him the time and information he needs to engage with the core task.
"A colleague and I had written our own data management system," he says, "but they kept changing the requirements for the DfES (Department for Education and Skills) returns and also I wanted something that could continue when I'd gone."
It was the prospect of unfettered web access that attracted John to the Pearson e1. He sees endless possibilities. "We'll be able to ask parents to look at SEN review documents in advance - it can make them feel more part of the school."
Then there's access for children. "They can go online and see what progress they've made, and they'll say that's really cool. I'm passionate for anything that will make them read better, feel better and learn more effectively."
Further down the line, he sees the web helping to create a more flexible way of learning. "Increasingly, all schools, and especially schools such as this, will have a fuller range of people working in them who are not teachers but who will be an essential part of the learning process. They'll need to access data about their clients quickly and e1 will help them do that. I like the idea of being able to say to a member of staff, 'go and get some retail therapy this afternoon and do your end-of-term reports from home this evening'."