You're the key figure

26th March 2004 at 00:00
No more do you have to cart piles of books and reports home. The latest systems mean you can access curriculum and admin information from your laptop, writes Gerald Haigh

For a long time, although management informations systems (MIS) have made data entry demands on classroom teachers, the direct benefits have accrued to school management. However, if they really are to be a tool for school improvement, it's important that there be a more direct payback - teachers need to be able to go to the MIS for information that's of direct help in their day-to-day teaching.

At the same time, if a teacher is called upon to enter information into the system, then the task has to be easy and foolproof. The basic requirement is that the school's admin and curriculum technology should be integrated on the same network. The advice from Becta, the official advisory body for technology in schools, is that information should be shared appropriately throughout the school and be convenient for staff - they shouldn't be limited to specific machines.

Many schools have had this integrated networking for some time. The historical assumption was that admin information - personal stuff about pupils and staff, for example - should be kept well away from the possibility of pupil hackers. Now, though, there's more confidence in security systems and password protection. The need for a professional approach to data storage and access can never be ignored though, and there's a school of thought that wants to see data looked after outside schools - for example on servers run by other organisations.

What's needed, then, is a school network with enough hardware to enable teachers easy access to pupil data, preferably in their classrooms and certainly in departments. Ideally, it'll go well beyond that, so that teachers have their own portable computers and the school is wireless networked. There's a case, too for access via classroom electronic whiteboards, so that teachers or tutors can discuss patterns (of attendance, for example) with a whole group.

So now we've got Mrs Jimson, the history teacher, on the MIS network to look at the performance of her class and her tutor group so she can plan her teaching and her mentoring advice. She can do this anywhere in the school, at any time. Better still, she'd like to be able to do exactly the same thing sitting at home. That implies web access to the MIS, a facility already available or being developed by each of the main companies.

All that is technology. What really matters is the management thinking behind it. There are decisions to be made. It's not good practice, for instance, to give the whole of the staff full access to the whole performance and assessment sections. Not because you want to keep anything secret, but because it's too easy to overwhelm people with data. Classroom teachers, battling to keep up with marking, preparation and a social life, don't want to search for their pupils in a forest of names and numbers. On the other hand, they want to see enough to make comparisons and see patterns over time.

Similarly, a head of department or a senior manager may want access to a lot of pupils - but in such a way that it's easy to home in on groups and individuals, and to see broad summaries. Decisions like this should be made by people in schools so it's up to the suppliers of technology to respond.

Teachers don't want to hear an ICT supplier or adviser saying, "You can't do that. You'll have to do it this way instead."

On top of all that comes the notion of "data literacy". Teachers, especially at management level, have to be able to see what's significant in what they're looking at and what's just background "noise". For example, you may spend a year group meeting worrying about a 2 per cent change in the grades of a group of 100 children only to realise that 2 per cent is actually two children - and you know who they are and what needs to be done, and in any case the 2 per cent change is more than accounted for by imperfections in your assessment procedure. That's an extreme example, but it emphasises the importance of not letting data get in the way of professional judgment.


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