There is an inevitability about the way computers have been taking over chunks of school administration. There is talk that all reports sent between schools and the Department for Education and Employment will be transferred electronically by 2002. To cynics among us, that may seem like yet another missable deadline.
But the technological tide is set to become a flood with the department's decision to change Form 7, the annual return each school makes containing assessment and management information. Until now, schools have been asked to submit aggregated figures - lists of pupil numbers, in total and by gender, and global assessment data. Without individual data, it is impossible to measure how much achievement has been shaped by certain factors - such as ethnic origin.
Form 7 will contain individualised returns, which will lead to an enormous increase in the amount of data that schools must collect, making computerisation of management materials essential.
Such an expansion is a challenge to the software industry. The market for school management systems has been fairly static, playing second fiddle to the hitherto more sexy world of multimedia toys for the classroom. A relatively small number of software companies (see box) have dominated different parts of the market for some years. Most, if not all of these companies are upgrading their products to meet the new data-intensive environment.
With the Form 7 changes, schools will increasingly be crying out for integrated software which can not only claw back much of the time consumed in repetitive paper-based tasks and process data with the minimum of staff training or computer expertise. This also means the software makers must provide cost-effective (telephone-based) technical support.
One new supplier which is on the case is Wauton Samuel, based in Deptford, south-east London, whose product, PASAPP - the Pupil Administration System Application - has won over heads in Lewisham. Indeed, the authority wrote to primary schools in April recommending they switch to PASAPP because it would meet their "immediate needs now".
Lewisham wanted to control management products used in its schools to minimise compatibility and training problems. The attractions of PASAPP for the borough lie in the range of activities it covers and the relative simplicity with which information can be input, accessed, amended or presented. The raw data can also be imported into other Microsoft applications, such as Word or Excel.
Daryl Glaze, head of Baring primary in Lee, says: "It covers everything that a primary school does, including special educational needs - and it saves us hours and hours of clerical work."
The school spent around pound;4,000 on PASAPP and two new computers. Mrs Glaze says it was money well spent. "It's very simple to operate. In systems we used beforehand, we had to go into different parts of the program to get different pieces of information. In this, we have that information very readily available. We are not IT experts here, and yet we can use this easily. We also have access to good telephone help."
Among the devices offered to save time on enterting data on to the computer is an optical mark reader, or OMR, useful for collating large amounts of information such as school dinner numbers or attendance registers. The user fills in an A4 equivalent of a National Lottery slip, marking the relevant points on a grid and passing the form through a scanner. The data is transferred on to the computer. However, at approaching pound;2,000 each, the cost is prohibitive for many smaller schools, and they have to make do with in-putting data manually.
But even without OMR, Lewisham's primaries appear happy with their new software. Other features which have attracted them include its facility to produce attendance reports for individual pupils or a class. In cases of poor attendance, the system will automatically generate notices detailing the child's record at the end of the week, requesting a written explanation from their parents for absences. The software will also log assessment data, and allow schools to set their own targets, and enables analysis of this data, bringing in such factors as race, attendance or even the taking of school dinners, on achievement.
Lela Kogbara, an assistant education director in Lewisham, believes that some heads may not fully appreciate how IT will affect their school's management. She says: "I am not sure this will save schools money. Despite what people think about IT systems, they do not save time and money. They do, however, improve efficiency and effectiveness.
"I suspect what's happening here is that schools are being a lot more effective. IT moves people on to another level: their expectations increase, they deliver more and they move on."
Wauton Samuel's director, David Waugh, says school admin products must have the flexibility to process and analyse an ever-widening range of data. "In terms of assessments, PASAPP is extremely flexible. We do not fix the format of this stuff. You can make it fit with the way your school works - schools have used this in a surprising variety of ways."
LEADERS OF THE PACK?
SIMS, originally set up by teachers, is strong in England and Wales. SCAMP, supplied by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, dominates north of the border. Since RM bought Key Solutions, it has been making inroads with 'Assessment Manager' and is launching a new version of Integris. Other products have their loyal supporters, notably Phoenix, produced by Scott Reed, which is used in parts of Scotland, and Sanderson PSS, which markets Script for Windows.
Contacts: Key Solutions RM01943 463346; Sanderson PSS 0113 254 2000;SCET0141 337 5000; Scott Reed 01420 83085; SIMS 01234 838080
* Wauton Samuel. Tel: 0181 691 6622. PASAPP is written for Microsoft Access 97. Platform: Windows PC. Though PC applications can be run on an Apple Mac using PC emulation, users should check their configuration of Windows with their supplier before installing. Wauton Samuel offers support via a service-level agreement.