Programmed to do better

New software is helping schools - and parents - to tackle truancy and disruption
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The Independent Online

It sounds like an idea for a science-fiction novel: "Computer program saves school". But at King George V in South Tyneside, truth is stranger than fiction.

It sounds like an idea for a science-fiction novel: "Computer program saves school". But at King George V in South Tyneside, truth is stranger than fiction.

Two years ago, the 600-pupil co-ed comprehensive was judged a failing school and put on special measures. With pupils from council estates classed in the top 5 per cent of the most socially deprived, its challenges were typical: low attendance (about 85 per cent), disruptive behaviour, lack of attention in class and poor attainment. Now, two years later, it is ranked as the 32nd most-improved school in the country on GCSE results. How did they turn things around?

"We found a technology that made it easier for us to monitor attendance and behaviour. This helped us to steer our resources in the right direction," says the head, John Frain.

The software was Serco Learning's ePortal, a web-based live database that can be used to record attendance, misbehaviour, student assessments and reports. Each teacher at King George V has a networked laptop, and they can all simultaneously access the system to input and review comments about students.

"Now teachers can see how a pupil who is causing trouble in their class is behaving in other classes, simply by looking at their computer. It allows one person to get a holistic view of what's really happening with individual children on a day-to-day basis. When you can see the behaviour, then you can start to manage it," says Serco's marketing director, Michelle McCann.

At King George, teachers began to log any incidents of misbehaviour. Before, they would write it on a slip of paper and hand it to an administrator to input. The school was taking part in a nationwide behaviour improvement programme. This meant it had to deploy a "lead behaviour professional", a specially trained teaching assistant whose job it is to deal with class disruptions. It's not just bad behaviour that's noted. At the end of each term, pupils with clean attendance records go into a draw with a chance to win a mountain bike. Adding fun and motivation, at the end of the last school year, the six students with perfect attendances were driven home in a stretch limousine.

The next step will be to give parents password-protected access to information on their children's behaviour. Because the programme is web-based, this means parents will be able to check on their children through the school day. That's an unsettling thought for a teenager up to no good, but it may be just the kind of clampdown on behaviour that the Government might like to see.

"I think we always needed to have something like this, but in the past it just wasn't available," Frain says. "When you are trying to improve a school, there is no one thing that brings about a significant improvement, but we found this single database system really helped. Information technology is definitely one way of reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers."

Reducing this burden was exactly what interested Philip Morant School and College, which has 1,600 students aged 11 to 18. A survey in May 2002 showed that, in term time, teachers worked an average of 54 hours a week but spent only 39 per cent of this teaching. Too much time was being spent by teachers on administration. By giving all the teachers laptops and wiring them up to a single database of students, updated daily throughout the term, the time taken writing reports was cut by half.

Another remarkable feature of ePortal was harnessed by this school in its the cover centre. Teachers could use the program to set work for students when a teacher was going to be absent. Work can be marked automatically and results returned via ePortal to the teacher's laptop.

This system, running at Philip Morant for two years, has reduced workload and raised standards of learning when teachers are away. Teacher Celia Larkham is a fan: "It means that when you're absent, you can still set meaningful work. It's great to set work that's more than just filling in."

For details of Serco's information management systems for schools, call 0870 046 8865 or e-mail