Seeing eye to eye
Ask Tony Richardson about the role of management information systems (MIS) and he recalls his years as a primary teacher and head: "The biggest issue I faced was how to make the curriculum relevant for each child. The use of MIS has a lot to offer here." Today he is director of online learning at the National College for School Leadership, a driving force in helping school leaders understand how technology can raise standards.
"A good teacher is assessing children's learning all the time but, in the hurly-burly of the classroom, the difficulty lies in capturing that information," he says. "There is now software which can help systematise that process. If schools invest wisely, a lot of the data can be collected efficiently, without creating an additional burden."
Richardson believes it is vital to take a strategic view of how the data is to be structured and organised. "You need to think about how data is used at three levels: individual student level, group level and at the level of overall school accountability," he says.
"At student level, students and teachers can analyse learning patterns together, identifying areas of strength and those where support and guidance are needed. Increasingly, systems not only provide information about strengths and weaknesses in learning, they can also make links to a student's learning styles.
"At the second level, departmental heads and subject leaders have a responsibility to ensure the school meets the collective needs of a group or class. That translates into the school's decisions about designing and planning the curriculum and allocating time and resources.
"And at school level, the senior management team and governors are responsible for ensuring the school is identifying its strengths and weaknesses. You can't make a good judgment unless you have the supporting data."
Richardson is keen to stress that a school's systems should work together seamlessly so that information can be shared with ease. "We need a bringing-together of the management information systems which handle and present data with the curriculum systems, so that as a teacher you can have regular feedback about how you are doing with a student," he says. "There is no reason why this information shouldn't be used in the dialogue teachers have with students and their parents about what has been learned so far, and what the student needs to do next.
"MIS information can provide the basis for a discussion about the targets the student is trying to achieve - this week, this month and this year.
Schools are now doing some excellent work using this kind of cyclical process to inform teaching and learning in a much more precise way than was possible four or five years ago."
Richardson highlights the emergence of managed learning environments. "They can bring together management information systems and learning delivery, and offer support for e-learning, both in and outside school. Managed learning environments are at an early stage of development, and my advice is: take the time to make an informed choice, based on what you are trying to achieve in learning."
The National College for School Leadership now gives school leaders the opportunity to learn through its managed learning environment, the Learning Gateway. The use of ICT to support management decision-making is one of the areas covered in the college's strategic leadership of ICT programme, designed to help headteachers focus on leading ICT in schools. Good practice is being shared through talk2learn, the forum for the National College for School Leadership's online communities. Says Richardson: "There isn't an issue that faces a school, even in the most challenging of circumstances, that hasn't been cracked by someone else in the system."
National College for School Leadership: www.ncsl.org.uk