New national IT system to track primary pupils

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Data on weight, health and wellbeing could be recorded by schools

The Scottish government is in the process of designing a new national IT system for primaries which will potentially allow schools to monitor everything from their pupils’ weight to how well they read and write.

The system – being designed in partnership with academics, headteachers and education directors – will also be used to record information on absence and exclusion rates.

The new “dashboard” is being likened to the Insight benchmarking tool introduced to secondaries for pupils in S4 to S6 last year. Using Insight, secondaries can ensure pupil performance is improving year-on-year and drill down to see how well they are serving different groups of pupils: children in care as compared with the rest of the school population; girls and boys; and children from the most and least deprived areas.

The system also generates a comparator for every secondary so schools can see how well their pupils are doing in comparison with students living in similar circumstances in other parts of the country.

ICT systems used for tracking and recording pupil performance in primary had been blamed for increasing teacher workload, said Graeme Logan, Education Scotland’s strategic director for attainment and improvement (see panel, right). A national system designed specifically for Scotland would mean that schools would no longer have to use packages that were not fit for purpose, he argued.

‘Focus on key information’

Mr Logan told a recent event: “We want a smart, streamlined system that pulls together the data that schools need, perhaps covering attendance, exclusion and achievement information.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said it was also important for the system to look at health and wellbeing. It could record “health-focused data” such as weight, she suggested. The latest figures show that around a quarter of Scottish P1 children are an unhealthy weight, a proportion that has been unchanged for about a decade.

But the man who led the introduction of the Insight benchmarking tool for the senior phase of secondary urged caution.

Colin Sutherland, a former secondary headteacher who retired from his role as professional adviser to the Scottish government last month, said: “It’s the old story: you don’t want to give weight to the wrong things. You have to measure what’s important because as soon as you start to keep tabs on certain things, those are the things that become the focus.”

When Insight was being designed the key question was “what really matters?”, he said.

Mr Sutherland added: “We decided it was about destinations, so where pupils ended up; literacy and numeracy; the attainment of all children, not just the most able; and how well the school performed in its context. So we took those key ideas and built on them.”

A data system looking at broad general education would probably focus on the three areas of the new curriculum it was the responsibility of all teachers to deliver: literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, Mr Sutherland said.

With the planned introduction of standardised national tests in literacy and numeracy in P1, P4, P7 and S3, there would be information to populate the system with in these areas, the former government adviser said. But it was harder to see how one could measure wellbeing, he warned.

‘Up-to-date’ knowledge

Schools and local authorities needed good data to improve, said Sue Ellis, literacy expert and co-director of the Centre for Education and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

However, if the new system was used simply to place schools and pupils on “a ladder of attainment” it would not bring about improvement, she added. Statistics had to be accompanied by “really rich professional knowledge” so if schools identified a problem they would know what to do about it.

Ms Ellis said: “If you have a class with poor comprehension scores you need to think what you are going to do about that. But if your knowledge is not up-to-date then you are not going to make the right sorts of decisions.

“Education Scotland and local authorities need to work with universities so they have the most up-to-date knowledge about what can go wrong and what can be done to put things right.”

The Insight benchmarking system for secondaries took more than two years to deliver. The Scottish government is aiming to have a system for primary schools in place by 2017.

Tackling the ‘dead hand’ of bureaucracy

Teaching unions have described bureaucracy as “a dead hand lying on top of Curriculum for Excellence”. Two years ago the Scottish government set up a group charged with tackling the “pointless paperwork” linked to the new curriculum.

It reported for the first time in December 2013 and recommended, among other things, that ICT systems for tracking and reporting should be used with caution. It said: “Just because such systems can support very detailed planning and reporting, it does not mean they should be used in that way.”

A follow-up report in March found that such ICT systems were still being used in an “overly bureaucratic” manner.

Now the Scottish government is designing a national IT system for tracking pupil performance, arguing that introducing a Scotland-specific system that is fit for purpose will cut teacher workload.

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