Management information systems: Systems of survival

School administration has become a high-tech job - but it needn't cost the earth, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Behind every classroom, there's a back office where the reams of data required to keep the modern school running - and feed reports to a statistics-hungry government - are collated, analysed and distributed. In recent years, schools have spent many millions of pounds on Management Information Systems (MIS) that handle all this data and smooth the administration of the school.

"I don't know what I would do without all of this," says Tina Stavrou, senior administration officer at Oakthorpe Primary School in north London. "I would be buried under paper and would never find anything."

Yet Becta, the Government's ICT in education watchdog, has found schools are getting poor value for money when it comes to MIS. It reckons that of the £180m spent annually by schools on MIS (and it believes this to be a conservative estimate), some £55m is used to buy in support for the systems.

Raj Patel is ICT co-ordinator at Parliament Hill School in the London borough of Camden. He says that schools must do their homework and take a long-term view of their needs before investing in an MIS system. "Our system costs about £4,000 a year to license but it's not about going for the cheapest product," says Patel. "Flexibility was very important to us and this system gives us that flexibility."

However, schools need to be careful not to jump on the latest technology bandwagon - what suits one school might not suit another, says Patel. At Parliament Hill the children are registered electronically using interactive whiteboards. The school decided against using the latest portable technology - such as PDAs (personal digital assistants) or swipe cards - because of concerns about long-term maintenance costs. "We also wanted to see how that technology develops in a year or two," says Patel.

A good MIS system should be simple to use and have the flexibility to adapt as a school's requirements become more sophisticated. MIS is no longer about managing budgets or maintaining contact lists. Increasingly schools are analysing the data they hold on pupils to develop personalised learning plans or make early interventions at the first sign that a pupil is struggling.

Hayes Secondary School in Bromley has spent the past three years developing a database that allows it to really interrogate the data so it can identify when and where pupils, be they special needs or gifted and talented, need extra help and support. According to the assistant head, Lee Harness, this investment is already paying off in the form of better targeted interventions and improved results.

Expect the school of tomorrow to be even more high-tech. Some schools are already using the latest biometric technology to read pupils' fingerprints to order school meals or register attendance. Stirling High School in Scotland is putting the technology through trials, and believes it beats swipe cards, which can be easily lost.

Bryntirion Comprehensive in Bridgend in Wales is using a similar system to register sixth-form pupils - not a truancy busting measure, according to head Alywn Thomas (attendance was already running at 96 per cent, he stresses), but driven by the need to reduce the teachers' workload. He's particularly keen to free up teacher time so his staff can mentor pupils as part of the personal development element of the new Welsh Baccalaureate. He hopes to roll out the system to the whole school in the next financial year and plans to extend the scope of the technology to include cashless school meals.

A Guardian Alert function can also be added, so parents are informed when pupils are not in school via an automatic text alert to their mobile phones. This way, there can be a quick check on a pupil's whereabouts and wellbeing.

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