Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The thin red line?

Red pen writing A+

Real-time reporting to parents will be a requirement for all secondary schools by 2010. Liz Lightfoot examines exactly what the requirement is and what it means for schools.

Students beware: real-time reporting is on its way. In less than two years, all parents will have the right to information about what their child is doing at school whenever and wherever they have access to the internet.

The annual report and occasional letter home will give way to web-based access to regularly updated material under five headings - attainment, progress, attendance, discipline and special needs.

Within these headings, the government has so far not been prescriptive and ASCL is watching closely to ensure that each school retains the ability to make its own decision on what information is appropriate to disclose.

Implementing the technology will need thought and planning, says Mike Briscoe of Becta which is overseeing the initiative. However, he maintains: "The sharing of information can be done from the management information systems already in place or being brought in to schools. The first thing to do is to help schools exploit what they already have available to them."

Teachers will need some training in completing the data sheets and parents will need to be told how to access and make sense of the information, he says. Work will also have to be done to help provide internet access in the homes of 28 per cent of students who do not have it at present.

Start early

Becta has published guidance on its website and will be posting regular reports and blogs from the 18 schools piloting the scheme.

It advises schools to start now on the road to real-time reporting, identifying a member of the leadership team to lead the initiative and starting to think about the current engagement with parents and how it could be improved.

So far so good. But what do the pilot schools say? The first thing they report is that the limited schemes introduced so far to help provide computers and broadband internet access for poorer families have proved problematic, both because of the limited funds and the practical difficulties of providing a publicly funded service in a private home.

Then there's the question of which information will help parents and what will confuse or even demoralise them. Should parents be given scores for tests used for target setting and school improvement, such as CAT, MidYIS or YELLIS? How will a child feel to be told s/he is in the bottom fifth in the country for non-verbal reasoning while his next door neighbour is in the top 10 per cent?

Jane Lees is ASCL vice president and head of Hindley Community High School in Wigan, one of the pilot schools.

She says the school needed to start thinking early about implementation. "We are doing it step by step so we don't make silly mistakes. As a school you have to decide what you mean by attainment. Does it include weekly tests for example?

And detailed information about attainment and progress which makes sense in a wider context might not be meaningful at the individual pupil level.

"We need to think carefully about the way information is made available so that leadership teams don't spend all day fielding questions from parents who don't understand it," she says.

"We will have to become a bit more sophisticated in the way we use and record such information. There is also a tendency for teachers to vent their spleen in internal reports which is another area which will need attention."

Too much information?

Attendance and punctuality are proving straightforward but some thought is going into when parents should be told about behaviour.

"We have a behaviour system in which a student who misbehaves gets a written referral. We are piloting a real time referral through our MIS but at what stage should we make it available for the parents to see?

"Things happen and need to be investigated, which takes time, and you will be in a difficult position if you get it wrong to begin with," she says.

However, these are decisions that each school will need to make for itself, she says. "We don't want the scheme to be laid down and dictated by government because then you get micromanagement of schools."

Liz Lightfoot is the former education editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Line of sight

With real-time reporting, getting the technology right is hard enough but the bigger challenge lies in helping parents to interpret the information, says Oliver Harris.

The announcement that all schools are to provide real-time reporting by 2010 has produced mixed reaction from colleagues. At Northampton School for Boys, we have provided this facility for the past 18 months and have learned a few lessons about what has worked well - and what hasn't.

We decided to use SIMS Learning Gateway, which is a web server that draws data from the SIMS database. It offers us the means to securely share data on students' progress and targets, live, with parents and students.

By having subject teachers enter data into Microsoft Assessment Manager, rather than individual team Excel spreadsheets, we have at least five sets of data a year to draw on for each year group.

One advantage of the Learning Gateway is that it also offers the facility for teachers to enter grades over the internet, update reasons for absence and, ultimately, write reports online.

The Gateway is intended to run as part of a portal system with a learning platform and personal webspace which can be customised. That was not our intention and we switched off access to these functions. We still had to pay for them, of course, and the whole set-up was not cheap.

Training for parents

We launched the site to parents in September 2006, issuing security envelopes of log-in details and user guides and providing training at parents' evenings to hundreds of parents.

The training was needed as many found access and use of the site confusing - for example, you had to click on your child's name before you got the option to choose attendance or assessment data and it was not clear that that was necessary.

That said, the parents were positive about the idea of being able to access the data online and welcomed the steps the school was taking. We had recently revamped our website and wanted parents to use the other facilities such as online calendar, school fixtures diary, copies of letters home, parent presentations and news items - this all added to the reasons to visit the site.

Swamped with data

We soon realised that we had opened something of a Pandora's Box, however. The Assessment Manager software is populated with data by electronic transfer when students move up from primary school and from the exams module where entries are made, predicted grades given and results imported (not just for each subject but each component of each exam).

So, far from the subject-by-subject progress data we expected, the system was swamped with literally hundreds of pieces of data, much of which we hadn't even seen before!

I had expected questions from parents about what a Level 4c meant or what a working-at level was but instead I was asked about "the difference between CATQ and CATC".

Our liberal use of target grades across subjects and throughout a key stage meant that parents were presented with templates for subjects not taken and for year groups the student had yet to enter.

I accept that parents have every right to view all the data on their children but if it fails to inform or engage then surely it defeats the purpose?

After a year of being promised the facility to restrict what is displayed, we implemented our own front-end to the SIMS data, listing only subject data from the current year.

Using simple web pages, any school with SIMS and their own website can, in theory, present up-to-date information to parents using a few lines of ASP code and save themselves thousands of pounds.

Even with the simplified access, it quickly became apparent that we had to produce some frequently asked questions (FAQs) for parents on assessment data. These were not simply explanations of what a Level 4c means or what is intended by target grades but more fundamental questions about progress and how it is measured.

No absolutes

Parents want the data to provide unequivocal evidence that their child is making good progress but such absolutes do not exist. Rather than weekly or monthly data, we try to produce quality data at a rate which can accurately show progression.

The desire to show how things are going and whether the student is 'on track' is far from simple. The more information you share, the more questions you need to be prepared to answer. And while the data can be easily shared, the explanations that go with the data are not communicated so readily. Our training with the parents in using the on-demand data is 50 per cent technical, 50 per cent interpretation.

The future

Notwithstanding the issues with SIMS or with helping parents to interpret the information, we intend to persist with the facility to access data online, on-demand.

Given that a small number of our parents do not have online access (and a larger number who struggle with the technology) and that some might not want to check for updates in data, we would like to be able to email or text those who request these alternative methods.

We do not think emailing all or texting all is preferable to the on-demand model. But allowing parents to request the most suitable means for them seems the most engaging way forward. We hope to have this in place for next year.

Oliver Harris is deputy head of Northampton School for Boys.

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