Digital Reporting

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Regular reporting to parents has always been a major event in any school’s calendar. And as every teacher knows, the preparation, writing and collation of reports can be time-consuming and frustrating. When Schools’ minister Jim Knight announced at BETT in January that all parents will get regular electronic reports on their children’s progress, far beyond the traditional annual school report, there were doubtless some raised eyebrows and the scratching of heads as to how this was going to happen.

If his comments back in January didn’t put teachers on alert then Ed Balls’ statement in May certainly will have done. His desire is to have schools post students’ reports online, giving parents access as and when they need it, and in doing so, reduce the need for parents’ evenings.

There are some intriguing issues to unpick in Mr Balls’ vision. More importantly, however, is the key question of how schools can gear up to have their systems primed to handle thousands of communications with home every year.

Quite whether all teachers are in a position to go online in their reporting is another knotty question that needs discussing.

The present legislation dictates that by September 2008 all secondary schools were expected to provide information to parents covering achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs, on a timely and frequent basis – this should be at least once per term.

By September 2010 all secondary schools will need to offer parents real-time access to this information (including the opportunity for secure online access) wherever are and whenever they want.

Primary schools must meet the basic requirement by September 2010 and the real-time requirement by 2012, though many are already on this journey.

If additional functionality is required, the costs of implementing new or updated information management systems, learning platform or communication systems will need to be met from the funding education receives for harnessing technology, modernisation, building programmes and the devolved formula capital allocation.

The logistics of secondary schools being ready to roll out real-time access in two years’ time are worthy of some discussion but before we do, what are the pedagogical advantages of parents have frequent access to their children’s reports?

The main benefit is that progress or otherwise can be monitored and responded to on a week-to-week basis. For many years, the tradition in most schools is to issue brief reports – sometimes closer to grade cards than written comments – throughout the year, leaving the summative report until the last weeks of the summer term. From the teachers’ point of view, this might be a reasonable time to send them out, given that SATs have been taken and GCSEs completed but from the students’ and parents’ angle, this is probably the worst of times. Any critical comments can be forgotten over the summer holidays; any targets unlikely to be worked on.

A breaking with this tradition is potentially ve r y  l ibe r a t ing f o r  s c h o o l s and certainly offers more opportunities to communicate information to parents. But are there disadvantages that go hand-in-hand with this new style of reporting?

The first – and most obvious – is schools having the right technology in place and a staff that is able to harness it. Many schools currently use digital methods to report termly effort and achievement grades and to generate annual summative reports. The challenge for schools is to take stock of their present reporting methods, evaluate what’s working well and see where the good practice can be integrated into future reporting methods.

Training reluctant staff is a key area for planning. What the government is requesting is predicated on all teachers being able to have the skill to record marks and comments digitally. Now is the time for a skills’ audit. Since reporting has to be digital and available to parents in a relatively short time, Heads and their teams should be gearing up sooner rather than later to ensure that the appropriate systems and training are in place.

Online reporting might appear to be a challenge – and in some cases will be the cause of real pain – but it’s also an opportunity to take stock at the schools recording and reporting methods. With the right planning, it should be possible to integrate your marking with your reporting – this is a chance to make your data work for you and to make life easier rather than harder.

A second opportunity arises in the area of report banks. Many schools – especially at Key Stage 3 and 4 - are using statement banks, often provided by the developer of the MIS the school uses. Capita, for instance, offer schools ‘off the peg’ comments that individual teachers can select in order to build up a report. The problem with these is that when used in this way all reports are given the same homogenised feeling and end up lacking specifcity. Now is exactly the time to revisit the banks with a view to rewriting them and creating more opportunity for personalised comments.

According to Colin McQueen, a Learning Platforms Consultant for Hampshire Children’s Services, statement banks are “horrible, still a real a mess. Teachers aren’t using them properly and prefer to use the generic comments with very little tweaking. The problem is that the final report seldom gives a clear indication about real highlights and areas to work on which in the end is what parents really want to know.”

McQueen is certain that schools need to think more creatively about how information is communicated to parents.“It’s fine that parents can receive the information online and in a timely fashion but all they’re getting is the same report as would have been printed out. We’ve got to think creatively about presenting information graphically. We should be talking to parents about how they want to receive the report too. Reports are almost entirely text-based at the moment, with a few number and letter grades thrown in for good measure. I would like like schools to get a clear view of what they want to produce and then stick to it.

“If the system is right, then staff will follow, especially if they’re using methods which save time. By creating a system in which the recording of day-to-day data feeds into the reporting system will take the pressure of those hotspots in the year when interim reports and annual reports have to be produced.”

Not that schools should be content with the merely tidying up their present system in time for 2010 and beyond. McQueen would like to be “directed to their work online if available. I want to know comparative performance as well as criteria referenced.

If I get a report I want to be able to get it online as an interactive report that my children and I can comment on online. I want to be able to click on the comment “Sam produced a brilliant piece of work for his Geography work on the third world issues” and actually go to the work saved or created online.”

This sounds ambitious but according to McQueen should be within the grasp of schools who are clear in their vision and ICT savvy.

Shan Morgain runs an independent online school for 25 students where a system has been created in which parents can at any time of the day or night log on and see how and what their child has achieved. Her First School operates a ‘lights’ system which enables parents to access information about the status of recent homework, from a pearl light that indicates completion to a spinning icon if it is overdue. The school also has the facility to see when parents last logged on, giving an opportunity for a dialogue to be opened. A courtesy email is sent out if parents haven’t read a recent report, an act that usually initiates a fruitful dialogue.

“Online reporting like this isn’t a one-way street,” says Morgain. “Parents can email teachers at a secure address to talk about work and progress. With the right technology it’s entirely possible to create the right environment for parents and staff to engage in meaningful dialogue about the student.”

Morgain believes that with the right training and support her system is scalable and usable in mainstream schools. This does leave an important question for Heads to ponder, however.

With constantly reporting opportunities, isn’t there a danger that schools will be swamped with responses from parents, eager to contribute their thoughts and making demands on the teachers’ time? There is a strong case for trialling any new system and monitoring parental response. If teachers are being overwhelmed with questions, you might need to educate parents as to the level of response you would expect from them and the type and frequency of answer they can expect from the school. It might also be necessary to set up a filtering system so that mails can be dealt with by staff other than the individual teacher.

A strong response would of course be a huge benefit to the school. Engaging parents and creating a strong email response is to be applauded but will also need careful management.

It seems clear that if schools are to create a successful online reporting system they need to put the time into planning during the forthcoming academic year. Sort out what you want to report first, investigate the best software systems for your needs and implement a training programme that involves both the staff and parent communities.

Some experts believe that 24/7 access to reports won’t happen – but ‘timely’ access will. Whatever the DCSF’s final policy now is the time to put reporting at the top of the agenda and start the first steps towards preparing. Get informed; listen to Becta and Naace; find schools that have already moved to online reporting and see what they are doing. And lastly, keep reading E Learning Today, where we will be tracking this topic over the next couple of years.

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