Green is for go

26th March 2004 at 00:00
The technology is there for us to run totally open and transparent schools. But, asks Gerald Haigh, is this a culture shock too far?

The idea that all kinds of people from heads of department to parents are going to peer into your mark book to see how you are working, can seem a bit daunting. This, though, is a culture everyone might well have to live with in the future. After all, people in other jobs have had to put up with graphs, bonuses, pats on the back and kicks up the backside for years.

Quantified performance data is the technical name for it: something that is published, shared and pored over Consider the favoured method of Jack Welch, once chief executive of General Electric in the United States. His managers had to distribute their staff along a "vitality curve", defining three main percentage groups: the Top Twenty stars, the Vital Seventy sound performers, and the Bottom Ten who were shown the door. Fine until you came to repeat the process the following year and found Jack wanted another 10 per cent cut in staffing.

We couldn't work like that in teaching, could we? Maybe not. But on one school visit recently, a senior manager showed me a spreadsheet of pupil performance grades in one subject, with parallel teaching groups side by side. There was a traffic light system of colour codes - moderately worrying grades were highlighted in orange, alarming ones in red.

Immediately, my eye was drawn to columns that showed lots of orange and red - because they stood out in contrast to the others. Then I realised what I was seeing: because each column represented a teaching group, they could be read as a graphic showing which teachers were producing better results than others.

The culture in schools is far different from GE. Heads would be much more interested in examining causes, in middle-management effectiveness and in training needs. The general lesson is that if you produce performance data and then share it around, be prepared for the management issues that emerge.

The technology for sharing is the easy bit. Youprovide electronic access to the database of pupil performance, and keep it in a standard format that allows its transfer to whoever has the right to it. A good management information system should be able to do what you want - but make sure you know how up-to-date the data is.

For schools, the much bigger challenge lies in deciding who (beyond those with a statutory right) should have access:

* Teachers? Obviously. But they need to find, quickly and easily, the data that they need, without burrowing through layers.

* Parents? They ought to be able to see how their children are doing. But in how much detail?

* Pupils? It's good if they can measure their own progress against targets, and check their attendance and behaviour records. Should they be able to see comparisons with others? And which teachers are making adverse comments?

* Governors? How much do they need to know about individuals as opposed to groups?

* Other schools? Access to the right sort of information can help with the moderation of levels and grades and the passing on of good practice. Then there's the whole business of transfer from school to school.

* The local authority? It has a duty of support and care for schools. Whole authority improvement initiatives such as the Intensifying Support Programme for Primary Schools (ISP) put local authority consultants in intimate contact with the performance of pupils.

These are real management challenges for real schools - and they're more important than any questions about the technology.

Let's look at the issues in practice. Enter a classroom at Shirelands language college in Sandwell, near Birmingham, and your eye will be caught by what's on the electronic whiteboard: a list of the pupils and their photographs - an attendance register where everyone in the room can see everyone else's story as well as their own.

The head, Mark Grundy, believes it encourages pupils to turn up on time and behave. "It's only been operating for a matter of weeks, but it's had a positive effect already," he says.

His use of the word "positive" is deliberate, because the display draws attention to children who, in the normal run of school life, gain little recognition for turning up, for being punctual and co-operative.

"We don't focus enough on the ones who never let you down and are proud to come to school," he says. The system is particularly useful for supply teachers, providing a display of faces and names that is visible and easy to use. There are traffic light warnings - that motif again - for pupils who misbehave: green as a caution, yellow for a more serious level, and red signalling that the pupil is being removed from class.

The next step at Shirelands, a DfES Testbed school, is to provide 1,600 PCs on loan to pupils' families and those of their seven partner primaries. The possibilities opened up for multiple communication paths between homes and schools are endless. Within a short time there will be exciting developments to report.

Access to the management information system via the web opens up the possibility of allowing pupils to see into it. You can see why this might be a good idea - pupils can measure their progress against targets, possibly come back with comments and generally feel some ownership of the way their progress is being recorded and monitored.

One school that's working towards this is Rainford Technology College in St Helens.

They've started, explains the vice-principal, Sam Wells, with a relatively small sample of students: one tutor group of about 30. First they discussed just what information to make available.

"Facility's e-Portal allows you to pick and choose what data to make viewable," she says. "Students have their own personal log-in and what we're trialling initially is for them to look at attendance and assessment information. They can pick up subject assessment grades, and see a behaviour log with positive comments and an audit sheet for incidents."

The children can also check that their personal data, including home address, telephone numbers and so on, are correctly recorded. "Parents will have similar access," explains Sam Wells.

Discussions are going on all the time - at the moment pupils and parents see data in the form of tables, whereas the school feels it will be better displayed as graphs, so this is going to happen.

There are also constant debates about how much detail to show. For the moment, for example, the behaviour logs exclude the names of teachers. All of this underlines the importance of working slowly and methodically through a development like this, discussing each step with everyone concerned.

"There's a lot of fine tuning and tweaking to arrive at the right type of information," says Sam Wells.

Worcestershire schools are increasingly using TAG Learning's MAPS (Managed Assessment Portfolio System). Each child has a personal online portfolio which allows free access by teacher and pupil, from home if necessary. It builds up to show a complete picture of each child's progress in ICT.

Crucially, portfolios are web-based, they can be used to support transfer between schools, and are also available across schools for moderation purposes. Jane Finch,a Worcestershire adviser working on the system, says:

"For the first time ever we can actually see the national curriculum Levels which have been ascribed to work in schools across the authority. We can get a whole picture of how 'levelness' looks across a year."

MAPS is a good example of a product that bridges the gap between curriculum and admin ICT. Using it to the full requires that it has a good two-way link to the management information system so that pupil data can be used and performance data fed back.

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