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The villain reforms, but don't forget the hero

The electronic database can appear a villainous monster in today's school system. Spreadsheets of pupils' statistics have spurred schools to focus even more relentlessly on data, leading to "education by numbers" and the narrowing of the curriculum.

Teachers have been forced to feed the electronic beast. Not only must they type in swathes of data - and keep testing pupils so they have some figures - but they will face the blame if a pupil's results trajectory starts to dip. No wonder teachers increasingly report that they are under pressure to inflate marks and teach to the test.

But perhaps an electronic database could be a force for good. Some would argue that they are already, by highlighting pupils who are not fulfilling their potential and ensuring that they do not fall behind.

However, could they go further and actually encourage teaching that is more creative, flexible and enjoyable? That is the hope of the creators of some of the newer systems now available. Instead of pushing pupils towards a narrow test, they encourage assessment for learning with results that aren't put into league tables, removing the temptation to play the system.

The modern Mr Gradgrind is apparently replaced by a relaxed teacher admiring pupils' work on a colourful cross-curricular project - perhaps taking a quick photo as evidence on her smartphone, then using an app to select a child's new progress point.

Before we get lured into this Utopia, it is worth noting the pitfalls. For pupils, it is the fact that teacher assessment is not always without bias. For teachers, it is the major hassle any assessment system can cause, with the added problem that micro-targets can lead to even narrower teaching. In its recent report on music, Ofsted found that teachers were so focused on highly mechanised systems to record pupils' sub-levels of progress that they failed to do the most important thing, which was to listen properly to the music young people were playing.

So we may be able to turn the database from an evil henchman to a supportive sidekick. But we must not forget that the teacher is the hero and should be the one in charge.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.

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