I have just completed a small IT project for primary schools in my area. It was to track pupil progress through the Early Years. The progress of young children from birth to 60 months is tracked by their teachers in up to 18 increments, 6 times a year in 12 areas of development.
That’s about 1,300 data entries per child.
It’s not for us to worry about the wisdom or efficacy of this exercise, as it provides work for the IT industry in producing software that will ‘simplify’ these tasks and generate summaries for senior staff and dimwitted officials working for Ofsted and the DfE and that, in turn, justifies their own existence: this is normal.
It’s also not for us to worry that ‘IT’ plus ‘numbers’ zones out the non-technical and innumerate majority of those in the educational hierarchy: this problem is solved with charts and graphs which are mercifully coloured often with red (= bad) and green (= good).
So ‘good’ school software absorb lots of data (hugely lots = very good) and generates pictures which understandably are coloured red and green, to be used on PowerPoint slides.
There are plenty of proprietary products on the market to meet the above need; RM’s Integris being just one well known one. However, what is happening is that schools are abandoning these closed database-driven products in favour of home-grown spreadsheets.
There are three reasons for this.
Firstly, the ‘goal posts’ are moved so quickly in education that very quickly an established product lacks an essential field or even two. Pity the software house that included child data on ethnicity but failed to provide a field for where they went to nursery or who their child-minder was, before the new setting in question. I have ten fields on my child datasheet...the fun you can have sorting these.
The second reason is that people ‘get’ spreadsheets. Not everyone of course, but within a school staff, parents or governors, there is usually someone who is a whiz at spreadsheets who can take ownership and develop a spreadsheet tracker and ‘sort’ for Britain.
And thirdly, pretty much all MS Excels, and Open Office’s post 2003 are happily compatible with each other with what they are asked to do ( no esoteric macros thanks).
This is why my slightly pathetic spread-sheet tracker is going down well. I pretty much gave it away and encouraged anyone and every-one to develop it, find the bugs and share it with me and other schools.
It sounds Open Source in philosophy and so it is. As long as Gov carries on tweaking, then proprietary solutions will always be one or two steps behind. Only spread-sheets are that flexible with a basic user skill set.
The message I have received for this and similar projects is: adapt the technology to the skills of your audience and they will not need support or training and will run with a project and develop it. School software is nearly dead..I hope.