Most schools have not kept up with what management information systems can do for them, says education writer and former headteacher Gerald Haigh. Here he illustrates how they can make more of equipment they already have in school.

I once met a primary school secretary who had two chairs in her room – nothing unusual about that, of course. One was an ordinary office chair pulled up to the desk at which she added up registers, counted money and sorted through sticking plasters – all the things that school secretaries have traditionally done. The other chair was one of those revolving jobs that typists sit on and it faced a metal table, off to the side, bearing a computer. She called the typist’s chair ‘my computer chair’.

The implication of this is two-fold. Not only did the positioning of the computer say that it wasn’t seen as part of the core of her work, but it was also clear that she regarded the admin computer as her personal domain.

 That picture was once pretty typical of how management information software fitted into the life of a primary school. Actually it didn’t so much fit in as make a tentative and marginal appearance in one corner of the admin department.

Financial management

The reasons are historical. The first management information systems were devised in the 1980s by enterprising developers who saw local financial management coming and realised that schools would need help in keeping on top of it. The most immediately successful was ‘Sims’. It did well and saw off early competition because it was developed by teachers, with good understanding of how schools work, and it captured a huge slice of the market before other serious players got their acts together. Now part of the Capita empire, it’s easily the numerical market leader, with 22,000 schools.

However, it’s important to remember that there are other MIS products – such as ‘Integris’ from RM, which is in 5000 schools, ‘Facility’ from Serco, ‘e1’ from Pearson, and ‘PASAPP’ from Wauton Samuel. All of them have advanced far beyond the earliest basic functions of finance and lists of pupils. Today’s typical MIS can address a large number of areas of school life.

However, schools have not, on the whole, kept up with what the systems can do for them. The people at the sharp end of this are the local authority support teams who support most schools and are, in turn, trained by the suppliers.

A recent informal survey by one supplier among its local authority support teams elicited the estimate that only a quarter of schools were using their MIS packages to the full. Even more arresting was the same survey’s estimate of how many headteachers were fully confident in using their MIS for school improvement. The answer was somewhere between zero and five per cent. Both figures were for all schools. Primaries, it’s reckoned, come out worse than secondaries.

Added functions

The problem is that MIS has crept up on us. At first, it really could be looked after by the secretary, who handled the finance and kept the pupil database in order.

Gradually, though, the functions increased to include attendance, report writing, home-school links, support for the SENCO, exam entries, target setting – and eventually, the most important of all, which is the collection and handling of data on pupil performance.

However, the benefits of having the data on tap only become apparent if it’s properly used and it seems that quite often a school’s MIS is acting as little more than a very expensive card index rather than a driver for school improvement.

Peter Maher, of Capita, a former headteacher, has done a good deal of research on this. As the suppliers of ‘Sims’, Capita obviously declares an interest in promoting MIS, but it’s clear that Peter’s work and the suggestions that stem from it, have general relevance. In fact, Peter’s currently designing a self-evaluation checklist for MIS that’s applicable to all schools and will be generally available regardless of whose software is in use.

He’s based it on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a useful six-level framework for any sort of questionnaire or assessment tool. Bloom’s six levels are: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. It’s a scale that works well for judging how well almost any project or initiative is taking hold in a school, and Peter Maher applies it to each of the functions of MIS.

One of the most important of these is the use of pupil performance data – grades, levels, and marks.

 Peter’s self-evaluation tool applies this taxonomy to 17 areas where ICT can make a difference. This broad spectrum is intended to cover all types of educational institutions using MIS. Probably fewer than half are of direct interest to the primary head – in addition to pupil progress perhaps SEN, home-school links, assessment, finance, leadership, self-evaluation are the ones to start with.

Use of Pupil Performance Data

Levels:

1. Attainment grades (or marks) are stored electronically and are available to teachers. (Any teacher can call up, on a network computer or laptop, the past record of performance of any of the pupils she teaches.) 2. Reports are produced based on the grades, predicting future achievement. (Teachers and the head can identify whole group trends.) 3. Targets are set for individuals, and teachers can monitor and report progress towards them. (Teachers can set targets based on average point score and the autumn package, and there are systems to monitor progress against the targets.) 4. Data used to identify exceptional performance by individuals and groups. (The MIS throws up deviations from what’s expected, bringing them to teachers’ attention) 5. Parents can look at their children’s performance data via the web. (The MIS incorporates a ‘portal’ or ‘gateway’ – fully password protected of course – into the system from outside via the web.)

6. There’s monitoring of the relationship between assessment and what works in the classroom, eg learning styles. (Studying performance data informs teacher professional development and strategic curriculum planning.)

Making a choice

I want to emphasise the point, though, that almost every school already has, in place, a system – be it Sims, RM, Facility or whatever – that will take you most of the way across the areas and through the levels. You can debate the detail of course. A small primary, with just a few teachers and TAs who know all of the children very well, might not need the formality of six discrete levels.

There are other discussion points too – the web access option isn’t equally well developed across MIS systems, or fully functional in many primary schools. Many primaries, too, prefer to use specialist software products additional to what’s available in the MIS. Examples include ‘IEP Writer’ from LearnHow Publications for handling individual and group education plans (www.iepwriter.co.uk) or an automatic system for phoning the parents of absent pupils, such as ‘Truancy Call’ (www.truancycall.com) or ‘Groupcall’ (www.groupcall.co.uk)
Separate pupil tracking products are often used in primary, too, and ‘Primary Progress Toolkit’, from PfP Publishing (www.pfp-publishing.com) – is a well developed and widely used example of a friendly pupil tracker that tells its stories with focus and clarity.

The general point holds, though, which is that there’s a rising curve of sophistication here. It starts from just looking at what the MIS tells you: ‘This means we have accurate data to give out when it’s needed.’ Then moves into doing something about it at individual and group level. ‘We need to think about targeting that maths group, and maybe the teacher needs some help.’ And then progresses to a point where whole-school strategy is informed by the data: ‘we need to revise our whole approach to maths teaching. Let’s look at what’s working well and see if we can apply it everywhere.’

Lessening the load?

Is it extra work? It might be. Depending on your starting point, you may have to apply yourself to learning (from your support team, from the supplier, from colleagues who are further down the road) what the MIS can do for you. Secondly, as the flow of information and data from the MIS becomes intelligible to you, you may well see challenging management and leadership opportunities. But that’s what you’re there for isn’t it? And once you’re all into the swing of it, the workload could decrease.

If MIS is to get moving in a school, the head needs a good understanding of what it can do, enough insight to see further possibilities that colleagues hadn’t thought of and the enthusiasm and leadership to sell its benefits to staff. What you don’t need is a lot of technical knowledge.

In fact it’s better for everyone if you’re not a techie, because you’re then free to ask ‘impossible’ questions. (‘You mean it won’t do that? Why not?’) It’s those very questions and the consequent head-scratching back at the authority and the supplier’s HQ that have driven the progress of MIS over the years. So ask away and be very reluctant to accept negative responses from technical people. Jim Hudson OBE, head of Two Mile Ash Middle in Milton Keynes up to last year emphasised to me the importance of asking questions.

‘The software doesn’t make things happen,’ he said. ‘You have to ask the right questions. Being expert with the ICT isn’t as important as asking where we’re going wrong, learning lessons year by year.’

There are difficult challenges, of course. Sooner or later, for example, the careful analysis of pupil performance will raise questions of comparison from one teacher to another. What matters is how positively the issue is handled. Jim Hudson gave me the example of an NQT who was given targeted support when pupil assessments showed up a particular skills gap.

‘It’s not a question of criticising the teacher,’ he points out. ‘You need honest self-evaluation and to look for the strategies that will improve things.’

Worth the effort

Heads who are well on the journey find the effort worthwhile. Kae McSweeney, at Harrington Hill Primary in Hackney uses data from her MIS to make links between different aspects of children’s school lives and also to involve parents. For example, she has systems for recording achievement, behaviour and attendance. Although every primary head knows how these link together, it’s useful to be able to see the figures and the graphs – and even more useful to be able to show them to parents and to use them in discussion with the circle of professionals that’s being ever-widened by the Every Child Matters agenda. 

‘Attendance was an issue when I arrived,’ she says. ‘I wanted to identify quickly children who had a regular pattern of poor attendance and record it so that parents could see it. I also wanted them to see the link between achievement and attendance and behaviour and when parents can see this in action it gives them the opportunity to be effective in their parenting.’

Notice that neither of these heads has lost sight of the fact that what matters is the relationship between teacher and child in the classroom.

Andrea Curtis, then Jim Hudson’s deputy, now acting head at Two Mile Ash, gives talks on the use of pupil data. One of her slides says: ‘Teachers raise standards, not computers.’

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