Quick help with ways to compare

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Quest: Comparative school performance database

Available by annual subscription: secondary Pounds 150, primary Pounds 60 or by local authority negotiation SIMS, Priory Business Park, Cardington, Bedford MK44 3SG Tel: 01234 838080

Children do not just "do well" at school these days: they reach objectively measured levels, and we track their progress towards those levels with additional tests. We can minutely analyse their attendance patterns and correlate them with performance. We can set baselines and measure added value. Further than that, the schools themselves are defined by figures - floor area, staffing costs, expenditure on books, age-weighted pupil units.

All this information is recorded as figures and is stored, often in several places - at school, at county hall, and in shadowy vaults in London. Within these figures are hidden many stories - startling comparisons and contrasts; unexpected movements up or down; cause and effect; failure and success. To read the stories properly, though, calls for the use of information technology, which comes into its own where there are masses of data to be sorted, presented and compared.

Enter on cue, therefore, the Quest software package from SIMS, whose management systems are already in use in the majority of schools, though Quest is freestanding and can be separately bought and used. Quest stores as much data on local authorities and schools as is available, and then allows the user to show it on screen in ways that are easy to read, and which allow an endless permutation of comparisons.

Each Quest customer, local authority or school (two separate versions are supplied) receives with the basic software detailed information on its own authority's schools, together with national averages for comparison. Finance and performance are the two main categories of information available. It has all been gleaned and put together by SIMS not only from Department for Education and Employment but from the Audit Commission, National Census returns and commercial sources.

Some Form Seven data (the annual roll returns) is also available to schools within the same authority, with the agreement of the authority. Thus, for example a head and a governor discussing the speed with which the authority deals with special needs statements can call up a screen on Quest which ranks every local authority according to the time it takes them to issue statements.

Similar comparisons are available on a whole range of indicators including school funding, end of key stage league table data, attendance, type and size of school. It is possible, for example, to call up GCSE performance by a wide range of categories of school. So if you were, for example, head of a group five boys' school you could call up the national average for group five boys' schools and see how your own performance looked by comparison.

Local authorities will also be able to collect data - perhaps on National Foundation for Educational Research test results, aggregate it and feed it back to schools for the purposes of comparison. This ability to compare lots of performance data is one of Quest's most attractive features.

Although Quest is freestanding, and not part of the familiar SIMS modular package, users can export data from the SIMS management system into Quest, so that it can be compared directly with national averages.

If Quest has an Achilles' heel, it is to do with the challenge of keeping it up to date. That depends on how quickly the various agencies publish their figures. Not only does data from various sources become available at different times of the year, but it sometimes takes a long time to appear. The gap between the completion of National Tests in schools, and the emergence of performance tables is a case in point, though the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority says it now intends to speed things up. On the other hand, as more and information becomes available, the usefulness of Quest will constantly grow.

Quest is not a one-off product but an annual subscription service requiring regular updates. A new subscriber will receive current data. Updated data will be sent out, perhaps three times a year, on CD. The ultimate aim is to make new figures instantly available electronically from SIMS's own Website.

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