Running rings around administration

Filing cabinets are making way for CD-Roms as schools turn to new technology to manage their daily affairs. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

I didn't go anywhere near The Independent building while writing this article. And teachers often don't go anywhere near the school office when they write their reports.

I didn't go anywhere near The Independent building while writing this article. And teachers often don't go anywhere near the school office when they write their reports.

The now simple and ubiquitous tool that is e-mail has transformed the working lives of just about everybody whose job involves transferring information. For some years now, teachers in most schools have had the option, in writing reports, of receiving the blank templates via e-mail from the school office. They then fill in the relevant sections, e-mail them back to admin staff for further processing and, eventually, they're dispatched to parents.

And the use of e-mail as a basic tool of communication among teachers and support staff, and increasingly, between teachers and students, is now as commonplace as the rows of pegs for coats and bags outside every primary classroom.

But e-mail is of course now only a small part of the story. Over the past decade or so a quiet revolution has hit school offices across the country, so that just about every one of the 28,000 schools in England has a computerised management information system (MIS) supporting many aspects of school administration and student life.

Although the number of software products on the market to help schools perform their administrative tasks can seem bewildering, most schools follow what's called a "whole system approach", whereby one company provides all the applications in an integrated package.

And the vast majority of schools use one of five firms for this all-encompassing task. They are Capita, RM, Serco, Pearson, and Wauton Samuel. Of these, Capita, who own the SIMS product, have by far the largest market share, estimated at around 80 per cent.

The number of administrative tasks now performed electronically varies from school to school, but the core functions are handled by computers almost everywhere. These are the storage of basic data on every student, the keeping of registers and assessment records, including grades, National Curriculum Levels and targets. Added to this, most schools will use a software package to run the timetable and financial management of the school.

The more ambitious schools will, on top of these basic functions, cherry-pick one or two additional software packages to perform extra tasks, such as lesson planning, special needs administration or opening up their data to parents and other interested parties.

John Taylor from Becta, the Government agency supporting schools' ICT development, says: "The big change in the last five years is the increasing involvement of class teachers in deciding how best to use MIS in a way that feeds into improved learning."

The Becta website ( www.becta.org.uk) is the first port of call for any school senior manager or administrator seeking guidance on any ICT implementation issue. The scale of MIS will often depend on support staff resources within a school. Large secondaries, with dedicated ICT staff are more likely to have a sophisticated, multi-faceted system than a small primary, with just a school secretary in the office.

Marketing Director of the top-five firm Serco, Michelle McCann, explains: "The biggest thing we can offer primary schools is an integrated database, which, alone, can reduce workload significantly."

Serco and Capita both identify parent power as the driver behind the development of school networks open to the wider school community. Several systems are now in use, which enable parents to check, in a detailed way, the progress of their children through school.

For many pupils, the most noticeable knock-on effect for them is electronic registration, which enables teachers to record and download attendance at the start of every lesson.

This alone has improved attendance in many schools and discouraged some recalcitrant students from going missing during the school day.

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