Look who's talking to the parents

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Why should you entrust report writing to an impersonal computer?

Because it's more consistent and quicker. Jack Kenny explains

Talking to some teachers, you would think that school reports have the literary style of Henry James, the perception of Karl Jung and the national curriculum knowledge of Nick Tate. The truth is that reports are about making judgments andgiving a balanced assessment to parents across a range of subjects and skills.

It is not uncommon for teachers, particularly in secondary schools, to write 200 to 300 reports at a time, and there is clear evidence to suggest that many use a variety of expressions when they start, and gradually decline into some repetitive phrases and formulas as intellectual energy and creativity diminish. In other words, if your surname begins with A you stand a much better chance of a good report than if it begins with T.

Report-writing software uses banks of statements which can either be bought in and amended or written from scratch. Teachers will choose which statements to activate by either filling in an optical mark slip or working directly on the screen. The computer will then compile the statements and print them out. That simplistic description, however, masks a tangled complexity.

The reporting software in SIMS is its Profile module. In order to use it, you need the Star database which is at the heart of the SIMS system and will contain all the data on the students. The module uses a mixture of comment banks and free text.

Berni Martin of SIMS feels strongly that teachers should feel ownership of the comments. "The customising of comments can be a curriculum development exercise. In our software, departments can also analyse the frequency of usage of statements. If a statement is being over-used, it sometimes means that it is too middle of the road, too bland''.

He points out that many people have been prejudiced by earlier versions of reporting software which produced staccato sentences and disjointed thoughts. Now, he says it is difficult to decide if a report is compiled by a machine or a human. "The professionalism that we require from teachers is making a judgment, all the rest of the process is administrative work and can be done by others."

Profile at the moment is still in DOS format and will not be available in Windows format until December.

Peter Williams of Key Solutions RM says its reporting software can be used on its own or as part of the larger Curriculum Manager package which has been developed to run on Windows or Macintosh. The statement banks come from Cogent Software and are all capable of being modified, so there is a mixture of free text and prepared material. The Scottish Council for Educational Technology has developed specific versions for Scottish schools.

Peter Williams says that one of the developments Key Solutions will be marketing in the next few months will be the ability to use barcodes and light pens. Many teachers will be relieved to know that they can move into the future with pen and paper!

Cogent Software supplies reporting software for both Acorn and PC. This particular package can be used on its own and is not dependent on a larger system. Mick Ellis of Cogent estimates that a primary teacher will spend approximately two hours per report, but with reporting software that can be reduced to 10 minutes.

To charges that there will be a loss of quality, Mick Ellis argues that reports will be better presented, more consistent, more coherent and better balanced. One of his chief arguments is that, particularly in primary schools, it is easier to co-ordinate, since the statement banks in any particular subject will have been approved and maybe modified by the co-ordinator and will produce a balanced picture of the work of any child not subject to the biases or eccentricities of individual teachers.

Cogent also offers a bureau service to schools who want to offload some of the printing and presentation of reports.

Chris Seviour, an advisory teacher with Hertfordshire IT Services, says the designing of statement banks is the key to success, and an important advantage can be gained if the whole staff is involved.

"Teachers need to start by asking what aspects of English, maths, science, say, do we want to comment on? If it is decided that there should be a comment about pupils' understanding of the need for a fair test in scientific experiments, there needs to be agreement about the range of statements on this aspect of scientific knowledge.

"There is a further need for agreement about the style of language to be used - there will be different answers for different schools.

"Having done all of this for one year group, the process needs to be repeated for all the others in the school. If you try to use the same statement bank throughout the school, a pupil's progress cannot be properly reflected in his or her reports. So having decided what to say about understanding of the need for a fair test for Year 5 pupils, a school then needs to reflect on how that would change for Year 6. Of course, there would be much overlap but also subtle differences."

Anne Eardley from Croshall Junior School (430 pupils) in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, is part of a team of 17 teachers. "Like most teachers we are perfectionists," she observes. "A report simply has to be correct. I certainly used to write them out twice. Now with the software we can ensure that they are free from error and that they reflect progression. For instance, there is a distinct difference between Year 3 and Year 4 reports. The comments on the social side of a child's life are entirely personal."

Ray Randall of Streamwoods School in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, a primary with 300 pupils, has used reporting software for some time. "It is very good at creating pertinent national curriculum comments. We find that we have to improve the final presentation so that it does not look like a Dalek piece of work, but it does centre us on the curriculum and avoids the folksy kind of reports. Parents deserve accurate targeted information. At first it probably saved little time but now we experience real time saving and better reports. "

Negative comments come in the main from schools who have not used the software; positive comments come from those who have. All would agree that the partnership between schools and parents can only be assisted by giving parents quality information that will enable them to see that progress has been identified and ways forward charted. As with everything in information technology, training in the use of the system is crucial.

So how do you move forward? The software can be presented to teachers as a way of saving time, but the saving will not be immediate. It would be better presented as a way of improving relations with parents, as part of a package of better home-school links. It is not just staff who have to be convinced, but parents as well. Any reporting system should be just one strand in the way that a school relates to parents.

Schools could find they are locked into a reports system because of decisions taken by the local authority. If you do have a free choice, you need to ask some questions before buying (see panel).

* Cogent Tel: 01462 673017Key Solutions RMTel: 01943 463346SCET Tel: 0141 337 5000SIMS Tel: 01234 838080

QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE BUYING REPORTING SOFTWARE

* Will the software function on its own or are we tied to a larger package?

* Does the software allow us to write our own statements?

* Will it make reports simpler for staff in the long run?

* Will the whole process eventually be less time-consuming?

* Do all departments have to take on the software or can we assimilate them gradually?

* Will the software analyse the way that we used the statements?

* How easily can we make the reports reflect the ethos of the school?

* Is there evidence that schools have used this software with success?

* Can we use this software in assessing?

* Do staff have to have a high level of IT literacy to cope with the software?

* How well will the software work in our particular school?

* Does it run on the network?

* Can we bring in the pupil database if we already have one?

* Is the final presentation of good quality?

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