Software takes the strain in Wales

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Fed up with having to make sense of all those statistics? In Glamorgan they let the computers work it all out. Arnold Evans reports

The Government wants teachers to be value-adders, baseline assessors and target setters - in short, number-crunchers. They will be asked to identify each child's individual needs and "guesstimate" his or her potential. They will have to monitor his or her progress in relation not only to classmates, but also to subsets of pupils of a similar background in other schools.

From the child's first day in primary school to the moment he or she bids the sixth form a fond farwell, teachers will be accumulating assessment scores: class tests, LEA tests, SATs marks. There will be spreadsheets crammed with megabytes of data which could be of absolutely no educational use whatsoever - unless teachers are given a reliable and simple means of translating turgid rows of numbers into information on which they can act.

Similarly, education officers in local authorities will be expected to use the data from all the authority's schools to compare achievement and ultimately to contribute to a nationwide analysis of how well children are performing. They will either have to spend a ridiculous amount of time poring over acres of numbers - or find software that will do the work for them.

Dr Michael Treadaway and his colleagues in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales, have developed Aspect, a program designed to do just that. Feed in the data from all an authority's schools - anything from baseline assessment scores to the results of an lea numeracy test - and Aspect makes sense of it. The program spots underachievers, clusters of high performers, and classes or departments that are doing unusually well (or badly). It means that the authority can keep a tight check on what's going on - but, more importantly, it provides teachers with a fresh insight into how their pupils are shaping up. Because they can easily translate raw scores into the wider authority-context, they are able to base individual performance targets not on hunches but on hard evidence.

Of course, Aspect can't be of much use to schools if the accumulated data is locked away on a hard disc in the education offices. Teachers need to be able to access information as the need arises. Similarly, local authority officials would like to be able to dip into the schools' SIMS files at a moment's notice. This is now possible in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The authority's education office and every one of its primary and secondary schools has been equipped with a high-capacity telephone line (ISDN), which allows data to be shifted four times faster than is possible using an ordinary BT line. The schools' administrative computers are linked to those in the education offices, so officials and teachers are able to exchange information with the minimum of hassle.

In a large authority, the cost of an initiative such as this could be prohibitive. But the Vale of Glamorgan has only five secondary and around 60 primary schools, so it managed to install the ISDN lines and upgrade the administrative computers for little more than Pounds 100,000. The authority pays BT's rental charges, but the schools have to foot their own bills for the time they spend on-line. Of course, the lines are buzzing with more than tests scores and SATs results.

It's early days yet - the system only came into operation at the start of this term - but now there is no reason why that endless correspondence that routinely passes between an education office and its schools should not be sent electronically. Schools can use e-mail to communicate with each other, opening up the possibility of virtual in-service training sessions and making it that little bit easier to swap resources and ideas.

The secondary schools (with the glaring exception of the two that opted for grant-maintained status) benefit from being able to receive information on the new in-take directly from the feeder primaries. In fact, pupils can move between any of the lea's schools in the knowledge that - thanks to ISDN - their records will have arrived at their new destination before they do.

Pupils can also enjoy the more tangible benefits of the system. All the schools subscribe to RM's Internet for Learning Internet service, which enables classes to find out what the World Wide Web has to offer and to e-mail to their heart's content. Or at least until the telephone bill arrives and headteachers discover that an ISDN connection can be a mixed blessing.

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