Dorothy Walker finds out how a rural headteacher assesses pupils' learning and keeps parents informed of their children's progress using ICT
Val Cameron has "masses" of assessment data stored in her school's management information system. "I love data," she says. "But it is only worth keeping if you are going to use it to help children move on with their learning."
Val is headteacher at Spaldwick community primary school, Cambridgeshire, and the school's expertise in assessment underpins its work in and beyond the classroom, helping win the support of parents and the co-operation of other schools. "Assessment is at the core of what we do," she says. "You nurture children's progress by determining their strengths and weaknesses and adapting your teaching accordingly. We employ ICT to help us do that more effectively."
Parents are welcomed as partners in the process. Spaldwick is a rural school and many children arrive by bus, so teachers can't often have a quick word with parents in the playground. But the area is well served with technology: around 98 per cent of pupils have a home computer, the majority with a broadband connection. So Val has made links via the internet. She launched the school's website as the focus for the whole community, publishing everything from highlights of fetes to the low-down on local campaigns.
With the help of internet-based software, she gave parents a way of following their children's progress online. Today, the school no longer uses the software but is investigating how it might team up with other schools to provide a similar service.
With the help of SIMS, her management information system, Val has dug deep into her assessment data, designing a series of parent-friendly printed reports that show how pupils are progressing and where they are heading.
Teachers talk each family through the charts and figures at once-a-term meetings. Each term's report has a different focus and, together, they ensure there are no surprises. "Designing the reports called for some effort, but now it takes a few clicks to update them every term," says Val.
"We don't want to keep the data secret, we want to pass it to parents as often as possible and in a way that makes sense. They love seeing progress and targets.
"ICT has enabled us to enrich the information we provide and to work with parents as true partners. We also pool our data with the other schools in our cluster so that we can identify strengths and weaknesses across five schools."
In the classroom, children receive feedback on their progress from classmates as well as teachers. Pupils team up in pairs, each marking the other's work with "three stars and a wish": three areas where the learning objective has been met, followed by one where there is room for improvement. "By becoming a mentor and focusing on another pupil's achievements, the children are reinforcing ideas about their own work,"
When Val assessed her school's work with the help of Becta's Self-Review Framework, she was pleased that the process produced wishes as well as stars. "We were delighted to gain the ICT Mark and to be benchmarked as being where we thought we were. But it was also good to be able to identify areas for development. It is important to have somewhere to go.
The school is also planning to update its ICT resources to provide more challenging experiences for the more able key stage 1 pupils. "Some of the children coming through school are very ICT literate and are doing complicated things on their home computers from an early stage. We need to acknowledge the skills they have developed outside school and reflect them in our offerings and our assessments."
The school will also review its resources as part of a collaborative project to help girls with numeracy. "One of our theories is that girls disengage from maths because the ICT they use is too oriented towards boys.
We are setting out to create girl-friendly environments and trying to identify software and other materials that might hold more appeal for girls.
"The SRF reminds you of the good things you've done. ICT has been a hard slog for many schools and it is right that they should celebrate what they have achieved."
* I am delighted the SRF recognises the importance of involving parents. It is quite a challenge to communicate the importance of ICT; parents tend to think that once you have a certain number of machines in the classroom, everything is alright. We have a limited ICT budget so it is vital that pupils use their home computers to improve their learning. Keeping parents informed can influence everything from the success of fund-raising to decisions about which member of the family gets first go on the home PC.
* The SRF acknowledges that, to be successful, ICT has to be driven. A school needs a strategic plan - if you haven't got one, everyone is at a disadvantage and you won't go anywhere.
* Being assessed for the ICT Mark is a rigorous process. It has to be or else you wouldn't value the award.
* Attaining the ICT Mark was lovely, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
In every one of its elements the framework gave us room for improvement.
* Even if you feel your school isn't far along the ICT road, it's worth using the framework. It will help you plan where you want to go and provide support along the way.