Headteacher Alan Padden was frustrated with the assessment systems available to track the progress of the pupils at his primary school in Leeds. He was worried that they placed too much emphasis on test scores rather than on teachers' nuanced understanding of how pupils were progressing. It was a concern shared by his wife, Andrea, also a primary head in the city.
So they approached someone they knew well to invent a new system: their 15-year-old son.
The brief to their son, Chris, a self-confessed "mild IT whizz", was to come up with a more rounded system that was less reliant on formal testing. The teenager began work on the software in his summer holidays in 2001 and continued to develop and refine it over the years that followed. Even at university, where he studied economics, he continued to develop the software, sometimes doing 100-hour weeks of study and programming.
A decade later and the system Chris Padden invented, Incerts, is now used by about 200 primary schools in England. Yet it has had significantly more success in Wales, where nearly half the country's primaries, around 600, use it and an average of 20 more join each week.
Its surge of popularity in Wales may be because the country has shifted away from England's arguably narrower approach to education, abandoning Sats tests and introducing a skills-based curriculum in 2008. As a result, teachers in Wales need a system that relies more on teacher assessment and less on tests.
Computerised assessment systems generally have a reputation for narrowing what pupils learn and for contributing to "education by numbers". So can the new generation of systems such as Incerts really do the opposite and give teachers greater freedom over how they teach?
Chris insists that this is the aim of his system. "It gives teachers a safety net - they can do the more interesting stuff they want to do, and cross-curricular teaching, but be confident they are covering what they need to cover."
Of course, he would say that. Even though his company is a non-profit-making social enterprise, Chris is still a chief executive with a product to promote.
But international research - including John Hattie's groundbreaking meta-analysis, Visible Learning - has repeatedly stressed that formative assessment is one of the most important factors in successful teaching. So if such systems really can promote that in a practical way, it is worth looking at how they can alter teachers' daily work.
In the past, a simpler computerised database would have allowed a teacher to record that a pupil had reached, say, a level 2 in writing, based on the child's test scores or the teacher's own judgements.
With Incerts, a teacher can tick off an array of different achievements for each child whenever they feel it is appropriate, either using a computer or - shortly - a smartphone. They can see pupils' next steps up the ladder and simply click on them when they are achieved. So they may notice and tick off that a particular child now "forms letters accurately with consistent size", but that their spelling has fallen back.
By doing this, teachers can gain a more accurate picture of their pupils' progress through small, steady steps, as opposed to the traditional level-jumping that is seen through occasional, often sporadic, testing.
Assessment for learning
Done right, this should help to fulfil the main goal of assessment for learning - using assessment as a way to help pupils improve rather than simply as a method of recording marks.
One of the most successful adopters of the system in Wales is Ysgol Gymraeg Lon Las, which has about 350 pupils. Its headteacher, Dyfrig Ellis, came across Incerts at the 2005 BETT education technology show in London.
"Quite simply, I was blown away," Ellis says. "It was ahead of its time, based on skills progression through the curriculum. I saw that it could have a huge effect on what we were doing here."
The primary school was already moving beyond the confines of the national curriculum to a more flexible, skills-based approach, so just loading in test scores would not be enough.
"We needed a way to measure the progress of our pupils that was as dynamic and flexible as the learning experience we were providing," Ellis says.
Karen Thomas, deputy head and classroom teacher at Lon Las, says that she has found it more user friendly than traditional systems. "We were using various methods of assessment and monitoring with lots of paperwork, filling in forms, ticking boxes and photocopying," she says. "It took a lot of time for teachers to do things that are now being done in a matter of minutes.
"Now, within a couple of clicks I can access a child's complete skills history and see where he has been, where he is, where he is going and if there are any problems I need to deal with.
"Not only does it assess the individual child but it groups children so I know exactly what skills I need to do with them. Take creative writing in English, for example. I can see instantly that a number of children aren't paragraphing their work, so I know I need to target that area.
"You can also compare the performance of two different classes within a school year and it shows up potential issues such as the mixes of the classes not being what they should be."
Like several other assessment systems - including those available for users of Capita's incredibly popular School Information Management System (SIMS) - Incerts also has tools to help teachers with report writing, including by adding graphs.
"Parents have preferred the graphs Incerts creates because they can see where their children are within the class average," Thomas says.
Estyn, Wales' schools inspectorate, recently judged Lon Las to be excellent in every category. Its report flagged up the benefits of Incerts, stating: "The school makes excellent use of an electronic 'live' online assessment programme to identify pupils' learning needs, to track their progress and to challenge individuals of all abilities to reach their potential.
"Assessment records are updated daily or weekly according to need. They inform teachers and pupils alike of the next steps in the learning. The assessment system is used to produce reports to parents on their children's progress and to compare their attainment with the remaining pupils in the class in a sensitive and appropriate manner."
The fact that Incerts data from teachers in Wales is not being used externally to judge a school may be one reason why it is popular and why users stress its accuracy. With no risk of dropping down a league table or having funding cut, teachers can be honest with themselves and with each other rather than trying to play the system.
But any new assessment system will have negatives as well as positives.
Placing more weight on teacher assessment carries a risk in itself. While generally regarded in the education world as an improvement on drilling children for tests, it can lead to further bias against groups of pupils who already underperform. Studies have suggested that teachers in the UK can underestimate how well boys and black pupils will do.
Proponents of assessment for learning can also be cynical about electronic assessment systems, as they feel the last government hijacked the phrase to promote simplified data-tracking.
Bill Boyle, director of the Centre for Formative Assessment Studies at the University of Manchester, says that computerised systems are not useful for teachers in the moment when they are making judgements in the classroom.
"Teaching includes the use of continuous assessment information to re-strategise teaching experiences at the point of use - which is while the pupil is interested or motivated during the lesson," he says. "By that definition, (computerised systems) do not enable or support teachers to teach."
Boyle adds that assessment for learning is often a difficult concept for teachers to grasp. "It is simple in that it requires the teacher to know the pupil and understand where the pupil is located in learning, but difficult because many teachers do not use or understand how to analyse a pupil's behaviours so that specific support can be applied as the correct next developmental step.
"Also, there is a general misunderstanding of the relationship between the complexity of a classroom full of individual learners and the need for strategic, focused planning, integrated with continuous assessment to enable those complex needs to be supported on the pupils' learning trajectories."
Systems that encourage teachers to focus on micro-targets can also have negative impacts. The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile required teachers to assess children against 117 scale points. And although teachers could rely on their own observations, the amount of evidence they were required to produce varied wildly between schools and led to complaints that too much time was spent on assessment.
Similarly, a recent Ofsted report on music found that teachers can be distracted by overly detailed assessment targets and fail to assess pupils in the broader way that is needed.
A further problem with many computerised systems is cost. Some schools find them too expensive and some local authorities are actively opposed to their schools purchasing them, preferring them to use their own in-house systems.
Also, without financial support from local or central governments, companies have to charge schools full price.
Although Incerts is a social enterprise rather than a profit-making business, it has no government funding and so it is not cheap - schools must pay a one-off joining fee of #163;2,000 and then a further #163;500 every year, although costs can be cut if schools work in clusters.
Yet for Ellis, the benefits of Incerts outweigh the cost. "It's the most financially sound investment I have ever made," he says. "It has freed up so many hours for my teachers to teach and it's having a huge effect on standards."
Chris says the risk that teachers might focus too much on micro-targets is "a fair point", but stresses that Incerts works with schools to ensure that they used the system as a support for teachers rather than the goal of their work.
"The assessments made by teachers, who know their pupils, can be broader, more detailed, more frequent, more accurate and more useful," he says. "It doesn't come as a surprise to us that schools using the system are consistently achieving above-average results."
Much of the problem is perception, he adds. "A lot of teachers think of assessment as something that is done to them when really it should be one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal."
FINDING THE RIGHT SYSTEM
A range of electronic assessment systems are available to schools.
The best known is Capita's SIMS, used by 21,000 schools, which has its own assessment and reporting suite. It incorporates customised tracking, detailed comparative performance analysis data, a complete picture of pupil progress and end-of-year reports.
The National Foundation for Educational Research's formative assessment service is an online assessment package for primary schools that helps teachers integrate assessment for learning, personalise pupil learning and implement teacher assessment.
Others in the growing marketplace include School Pupil Tracker Online, Classroom Monitor, Goal Online and GL Assessment.
Tony Callcut, head of the 80-pupil Diptford Parochial CofE Primary School in Devon, was shopping around for a new assessment system three years ago and settled on School Pupil Tracker Online. "I needed a system that was more rigorous and easy to manage," he says.
For #163;350 a year, he has a system that is "intuitive, easy to use" and that helps his staff track pupil progress more accurately.
"I have instant access to a complete picture of how all my pupils are performing," he says.
"The identification of slow-moving pupils is all automated, so it saves time manually calculating and analysing them."
THE CASE FOR THE DATABASE
Flexibility: teachers can access pupil information anywhere and at any time.
Workload: over time, teachers' workload will decrease. Capita says that schools using SIMS profiles for report writing can save 30 minutes per report, or 15 hours for a 30-pupil class.
Constant updates: instead of sporadic testing, which gives a semi-regular picture of pupil progress, often with leaps or dips between levels, schools have an ongoing record with steady progression steps.
Support: teachers are fully trained to use the system and companies usually offer technical support.
Cost: some schools cannot afford to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds a year on an assessment system. And without government subsidies, companies have to charge full price.
Local authorities: most are indifferent but some are actively opposed to schools buying in such systems, preferring them to use their own in-house alternatives.
Workload: there is likely to be an initial increase in workload as teachers are trained to use the new system. For older children, teachers will have a lot of retrospective tracking to do before they can create an accurate picture of a pupil's current abilities.