Teachers are being exhorted to use technology to cut time spent on administration. Lorraine Hooper looks at how one school has taken this message to heart.
Each morning, 1,050 students at St Edward's Church of England School in Romford, Essex, pack their essentials for the school day - pens, textbooks, homework and, most important, their personalised swipe card.
Changes to the key stage 4 requirements, which introduced technology and modern languages as compulsory subjects, created timetable problems for the school. With a five-period day and practical subjects requiring double sessions, staff sought innovative ways to free up additional time for teaching.
They discovered Cosmex, the Computerised Swipe and Message Exchange, an electronic registration technique produced by Blixman, a trading company of Blackpool Sixth Form College. Initially a college system, the package was developed for schools by John Jennings, deputy headteacher of Eastbrook School in Dagenham, Essex.
St Edward's headteacher Giles Drew says: "We found that if we could register students electronically, we could save 10 minutes a day. On paper it saves us 10 minutes, but if you include the saving in movement time, it actually saves 20 minutes." By reducing lesson times by five minutes, they were able fit in an extra lesson a day. "This other lesson allowed us to build in other option blocks."
At a cost of pound;30,000, installing Cosmex was not a choice made lightly, nor without its opponents. "We went with it and certainly none of the fears were realised," says Mr Drew. And he believes the investment was worth it. "If you count up all the additional teaching time this system has freed up, then it actually paid for itself in a year. A child will spend five minutes per session in registration. That's 50 minutes per week for 40 weeks a year. Multiply it by five years and that makes half a term just sitting there saying 'Yes Sir'. So that pound;30,000 was very well spent."
Each pupil has a credit card-sized, laminated swipe card, which doubles as their library card, to log their time of arrival at one of the six swipe points around the school. Simple messages and instructions can also be relayed to students at this time - such as "Go to the library" or "Please report to the school office".
All the information is centrally held and data can be accessed from four dedicated terminals, allowing staff to check at the tap of a button if a pupil is in school and, with timetables also electronically held, where any pupil (or teacher) should be at any time. And each year parents are given a complete print-out of their child's attendance record.
The school's pastoral co-ordinator, Marion Plume, praises the system as a real success, not only helping to identify and track truancy, but also other problems. "As part of the senior management, we monitor children. We monitor their work and their homework diaries, so every week we select a certain number of children whose details we put up on the Cosmex system. It makes our job an awful lot easier. It really does keep track of the few pupils who have problems about attending school."
The net result is not only more teaching time but also more quality time with the pupils. "It's increased contact, so we can give more pastoral time to children, says Ms Plume. "We devote this tutor time to homework and reading."
"The change hasn't been instant - it's taken a while to get to this stage and it's been such a big change, but I think in doing so we're really moving forward."
In 1998, St Edward's invested pound;50,000 in information technology, radically transforming its administration. The school is now dotted with networked computers for use across the curriculum. Email accounts are being set up for every student (set to be fully operational by the end of July - way ahead of the Education Secretary's 2002 target for half of students); electronic mark sheets plot individual attainment targets; pupils use industry standard software from Year 7, and research information via the Internet and Encarta as naturally as they would open a textbook.
Mr Drew is the modest visionary. "We are ahead in some ways, but we are behind other schools in other ways, and I think all schools have got to watch what's happening and try to keep up."
The uniqueness of St Edward's, though, is the speed of the changes taking place and the tangible difference in quality school time for pupils.
School information management systems (SIMS) software is radically reducing the amount of teacher time spent on administration. Assessment Manager, with one-key entry of students' grades on electronic mark sheets, has been introduced to record achievements.
Learning co-ordinator Peter Bennett is delighted with the progress. "You can see patterns that you didn't notice before. We've not just got data, but we can do analysis. As a consequence, we can start predicting students' grades earlier and see under-performance before it's too late."
The school's OFSTED report from November congratulated it on "a new development plan which has a vision for the future". The investment in networked computers allows larger teaching groups and saves teacher time, and the current ratio of children to school computers is 6:1, compared to a national average of 9:1. The long-term goal is that ICT will be so integrated into the curriculum as a learning tool that it might no longer be necessary as a distinct subject.