Shall I compare thee to...
The furore about the Government's big standards initiative, the Pupil Achievement Tracker, has died down and the new software is about to arrive in schools. Worries about its possible use in measuring teachers'
performance have, for the time being, been put on hold. But, as training begins, a question mark remains: is the new system a case of too much detail?
The tracker is the updated version of the current Autumn Package - figures about pupil progress delivered each October to heads, allowing comparison of schools. At last week's Labour conference Education Secretary Charles Clarke put the tracker at the heart of his big new policy "personalised learning", also stressed by Tony Blair.
Back in June, announcing the Pat, he enthused that teachers and parents "at the click of a mouse" could compare individual children's performance with those of their peers, by gender, socio-economic group and other indicators.
But unions were much less enthusiastic, claiming that the data could be used against individual teachers during performance management.
The new tracker is interactive, and designed to be a much more flexible tool for schools than the old package. Heads, department leaders and governors will be able to compare individual pupils' progress with peers down the road or across the country. Targets can be set for individuals and the progress of whole cohorts followed.
Since 2000, schools have been able to compare progress against local and national benchmarks using Performance and Assessment data (Panda) - based on whole-school figures. This uses the results of key stage tests, and grades schools depending on how they fare compared with others in similar circumstances (measured primarily by the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals).
Heads and their leaders contacted by The TES were circumspect about the Pat's attractions and potential usefulness, preferring to wait for its arrival before passing judgment. Some said, off the record, that they did not think the level of detail it could provide would be useful and there was a risk of too much information.
John Bangs, education officer of the National Union of Teachers, also fears the Pat data may be one set of statistics too far. "There is a real danger of information overload," he said.
But Carolyn Brawn, chair of the Secondary Heads Association's education committee, believes it could be a useful tool, if used retrospectively and not given a major role in target-setting.
"It would be very heartening, for example to see what value-added your school is giving pupils between, say, key stage 2 and 3, when you compare your school with others of a like type.
"But the information in the new package will only be truly useful if heads make contact with comparable schools which appear more successful and find out what they actually do," she said.
If the Essex experience is anything to go by, the tracker - used carefully - could be a boon. Schools there have been using a similar system for almost four years. Its Target Tracker was developed by Christopher Smith, a county curriculum adviser, with the help of a computer programmer. It is now used by 98 per cent of primary schools in Essex, and is gaining an international reputation with users as far afield as Singapore and Chile.
The system's basic principles are the same as the Pat's - tracking and setting targets for individual pupils - but it is not available for other schools to view, and therefore avoids many of the concerns of the NUT.
Schools' data is linked to Essex's "Alert" program which flags up when schools or children fall short of, or exceed, county norms.
Once test and assessment scores for each pupil are keyed in, the program produces a colour-coded spreadsheet, which offers a picture of a pupil's progress in the core subjects: pink for target not met, white for target achieved, green for target exceeded.
All this information can be sorted to illustrate the achievements of different cohorts and for different subjects.
The system also creates automatic targets for children or groups which can be overwritten if staff believe there is a more appropriate goal John Brace, headteacher at Kelvedon St Mary primary school, has been using Target Tracker for a couple of years and would not now be without it.
He says "Unlike the Pat, this a contextual, not a diagnostic tool. It is for internal use. It is taking targets and objectives out of my office and into the classroom."
The program, which teachers can access from the school's computers or their own laptops, allows every pupil to be tracked from the start of key stage 1 up to and beyond KS2. Its automatic, individual targets are directly linked to Qualifications and Curriculum Authority objectives and so help teachers plan each lesson for each child.
"It has certainly made a difference to assessment and learning at our school," said Mr Brace. "They can see with one or two clicks of a mouse what each child needs from each lesson. Assessment is for learning now, rather than just a numeric exercise. They can concentrate on the how of the lesson, rather than on the what. The computer's suggested objectives are not set in stone, and the teacher, in discussion with me, can make amendments."
Like the Essex version, the very precise data held by the new national Pat system is designed to make it useful to to classroom staff, in contrast to Panda, which was aimed primarily at managers. Teachers will be able to compare their own classes with others and use the graphical information to set targets for each child based on what others with similar groups of pupils have achieved.
It is also expected that heads and governors will be able to use the same information to inform whole-school decisions. The software will allow the data to be sorted to highlight the progress of pupils by ethnicity or gender, for instance.
Joe Bennaton, operations director of BYG Systems, the software company which developed the original Autumn Package and all its updates, is confident that the new software will live up to the DfES's expectations.
"This is quite a significant advance on last year's system," he said. "We have been able to make the changes because we know school managers are far more computer-literate than they were when the first Autumn Package was released. Then the helpline we set up was inundated by calls, some from heads who weren't really sure how to turn the computer on. Things have changed now."
Training in the system will be given by education authorities, starting this month.
But unions are still not convinced, fearing that what might be sauce for managers may be poison for their members. The NUT's John Bangs is concerned that Pat may turn into yet another stick with which to beat teachers.
"The principal problem with all this data is that it takes no account of children's (individual) circumstances. It has no context.
"Teachers will have real questions and very deep concerns if it is used for any form of performance management because it lacks the context of the children's lives. If we go down that road it always going to be punitive."
WHAT THE PAT SYSTEM WILL DO
According to the Department for Education and Skills, the new CD-Rom will deliver improvements in four main areas:
* Pupil target-setting: schools will be able to set targets informed by the progress made by similar pupils nationally. So, for example, if you are a Year 3 teacher with a pupil who reached a level 2b in his KS1 reading test, you will be able to set an individual target for him, informed by what other children who scored 2b at KS1 went on to get in Year 3.
* Question level analysis: heads and heads of departments will be able to compare how well each pupil or group of pupils answered a question or topic in national curriculum and optional tests from Years 2 to 9 with how well those questions were answered nationally.
* Analysis of value-added data: Teachers will be able to track the achievements of different cohorts, whatever the grouping, gender, race etc.
They will also be able to group pupils by previous and expected progress.
* Network installation: Teachers will be able to access the Pupil Achievement Tracker from any school computer.