Close monitoring of pupils' progress over time and across the whole range of subjects is increasingly seen as a vital part of school improvement.
Keeping such data enables comparison with national standards, but it's not just number crunching for the purposes of external accountability. Tracking can identify underachievement in individuals and groups, inform teaching strategies and help schools target intervention effectively. And in the era of personalised learning and Every Child Matters, detailed information on individual pupils can help ensure that they realise their potential and that no one is left behind.
What's being tracked?
Schools might choose to record a wide range of data, such as the results of external and internal exams, national and optional tests, national curriculum levels, Cats scores, special needs and gifted and talented information, as well as teacher assessments, throughout the year. But tracking isn't just about academic attainment. Attendance and behaviour issues can also have a huge impact on pupil progress and some schools now have systems in place for tracking these in greater detail and analysing their interrelation with academic achievement.
Making it meaningful
Of course, all this data is of little use unless it is acted upon. The document "Tracking for Success", which forms part of the secondary national strategy for school improvement, emphasises that the data should be used to set pupils targets based on prior attainment. These should not just be numerical and relate to national curriculum levels or exam grades, but should include curricular targets expressed in words which give pupils a clear idea of the next steps they need to take to improve their work.
According to the document, tracking should be an integral part of day-to-day teaching and learning, and targets should be shared between staff, and regularly discussed with pupils.
Albion primary in Southwark is one school that makes this a priority. As a result of a borough-wide tracking initiative that produced a self-evaluation and guidance document, assessment co-ordinator Amanda Webb feels that the school's procedures are now much tighter. "We use a tracking grid produced by the borough. It's a system that works because you can refer to the data easily, class teachers feel they have ownership of it and it's constantly being used and updated," she says. Ms Webb believes that making time for staff to discuss the information is key. She regularly meets with class teachers to review targets and talk about how they can be incorporated into planning. Targets also need to be constantly reinforced for pupils. "We make sure they are in child-friendly language," says Ms Webb. "Common targets are on display in classrooms and pupils have individual targets on their desks. When marking work, we highlight whether they have been met."
The amount of data generated by efficient tracking procedures can create logistical headaches. Particularly in secondary schools - where teachers are less likely to have the holistic view of individual pupils that comes with day-to-day contact - it's important that schools have electronic management information systems (MIS) in place that are user-friendly, accessible to all staff, and enable easy analyses and comparisons between subject areas. However, commercially produced MIS are lagging behind developments in tracking.
"Few of these systems are responding to the changes in curriculum design fast enough to cater for the needs of institutions like ours," says Chris Jones, vice-principal of Chalvedon school and sixth-form college in Essex.
"We are tracking more than just academic data, and if the systems created do not work together - and many of them do not - then the education community has to struggle even harder to make them work."
In a survey of the use of data in schools conducted last year by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), teachers reported that the range of input options was often too narrow or academic and didn't allow for the finer distinctions in pupil attainment. They also complained that there wasn't sufficient time to update and analyse data, and of difficulties in accessing ICT facilities.
The most commonly used MIS is Capita Education Services' Sims.net, and many schools are using functions available as part of this system, such as Assessment Manager and Performance Analysis, to track pupil progress. But the NFER survey also found that some schools preferred to devise their own tracking systems as this allows more flexibility and the opportunity to tailor software to their own assessment programme. "Integrated systems do exist, but they are not robust enough or developed enough to answer the expectations of schools at the cutting edge at this time," says Chris Jones. Chalvedon uses a Serco system called Facility CMIS, but is working with the software house to adapt the software to more closely meet its needs.
Others are commissioning tailor-made systems. West Hill boys' secondary school in Stalybridge, Cheshire, has been using Pupiltracking.com since the beginning of this year. The company builds a bespoke system to the school's specification and, because it is entirely web-based, the data can be accessed from any computer, so teachers can use it at home if they wish.
Jane Hemmings, data manager at West Hill, says: "We chose it because it's easy to use. Previously, I often had to set up the spreadsheets for teachers, but with this system it's much more straightforward to input and call up the information you need. That means we're using the data more consistently. As it's a small company, you also get the personal touch when it comes to support and advice." Web-based systems are secured by password.
"As long as you don't do something obvious like using Shakespeare for English, there shouldn't be a problem," says Ms Hemmings.
There are around 20 software companies providing MIS for schools, and a summary of their products can be found on the website of Becta, the technology-in-education agency (see resources). Becta says "interoperability", or the ability of a system to work with others already in use in the school, is an important factor for schools to consider when adding to their software. There is a voluntary interoperability agreement (IA) to ensure that software can be read by other MIS systems; schools should check that their supplier has signed up to this.
Pat and Lat
Diagnostic tracking software is available to schools from the Department for Education and Skills. Since 2003, the pupil achievement tracker (Pat) has allowed local authorities and schools to import data for the core subjects of English, maths and science and analyse it against national averages, as well as identify targets for groups and individuals. One of the strengths of the system is that it can undertake question-level analysis of Sats and the optional tests schools might choose to set in the intervening years. This allows teachers to identify the questions that pupils answered particularly well or badly.
However, the system only looks at attainment in core subjects, and data for each subject must be inputted for it to work efficiently. Although teachers in the NFER survey made positive comments about the visual presentation of data, many found the input process tricky and said Pat was difficult to integrate with systems already in use in their schools.
From this summer, Pat will merge with Panda, the school performance and assessment reports, and include contextual value-added (CVA) data. The new system will be known as Raiseonline (reporting and analysis for improvement through school self-evaluation). As the name suggests, it will be web-based, so remote access will be possible and it will not be necessary for schools to buy or download software. The DfES is working with software suppliers to ensure compatibility with existing systems.
A new innovation at post-16 is the learner achievement tracker (Lat), produced by the Learning and Skills Council and available to download through its provider gateway. The software, launched in March, enables schools and colleges to use value-added and distance-travelled data for pupils in the 16-19 age group. As well as allowing schools to compare their performance against national standards, it produces "chances charts" which predict the likelihood of their gaining certain grades in exam and tests.
Keeping tabs on attendance
An increasing number of schools are using electronic systems that record attendance lesson by lesson rather than just at morning and afternoon registration. Attendance was a key issue for Fartown high school in Huddersfield when it was placed in special measures in October 2004. Since then, the school has undertaken tracking using software from Bromcom, and the resulting improvement in attendance was one of the factors that led to it being reclassified as a good school in February.
Fartown's head Steve Britton says: "Attendance tracking allows you to look for patterns over time, both with individual pupils and the whole school.
However, it's not the data itself that's important but what you do with it.
We have used it to target Year 9 pupils with academic potential but poor attendance. We interviewed them and put a reward structure in place. As a result, some improved their attendance from only 50 or 60 per cent to 100 per cent." By looking at year-on-year data, the school also identified that the week before spring half-term was a hot spot for poor attendance, and had a major drive to keep it high during this time, which included competitions and a challenge cup for the best tutor group.
What about behaviour tracking?
For a significant number of pupils, academic attainment is closely related to behaviour issues. Effective behaviour management requires an efficient system for recording incidents and acting on them. The majority of schools operate a paper-based system which involves filling in incident reports and keeping them in pupil files. However, some, such as Lampton school in Hounslow, west London, are finding that storing the data electronically is less cumbersome and more efficient.
Deputy head Norman Lawrence says: "We realised a number of years ago that we needed a system that didn't just record poor behaviour but would allow us to anticipate problems and intervene at an early stage with appropriate support. We also wanted to focus on low-level disruption rather than just more serious things. However, this obviously meant a lot more data and it was virtually impossible without a computer system. It would have needed a full-time employee to keep track."
In September 2002, the school adopted the Sleuth system created by the School Software Company (see case study). The system can be customised, allowing teachers to log incidents in a variety of categories chosen by the school, ranging from "calling out in class" to "fighting".
The school also uses it to record positive behaviour. The data, which is presented graphically, can be used to look at the behaviour trends of individual pupils or groups and analysed in a number of ways, such as by gender, ethnicity, year group or time of day. "It's a good diagnostic system that has reduced the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions dramatically," says Mr Lawrence.
Tracking the teachers?
Keeping detailed data on academic achievement, behaviour and attendance and following up targets will often reveal that some teachers are less successful than others. This has generated concern in the profession as to how managements will respond to perceived shortcomings.
However, school leaders emphasise that tracking should be seen as an additional means of identifying teachers in need of support and continued professional development, rather than as a stick with which to beat weaker staff. Mr Lawrence points out that managers need to take care in interpreting the information. "When it comes to behaviour tracking, you have to look at the data carefully as it may not mean what it superficially appears to mean. If a teacher logs many incidents, it may just be that they are using the system conscientiously and efficiently and not that they have weaker discipline than other teachers.
"Also, there are often a number of things that contribute to problems in the classroom, such as what has gone on before the lesson, or at home, so it's not just down to the teacher. If there are problems, they have to be managed sensitively, and schools need to have good staff training and CPD systems. Tracking is just one of a number of ways that the need for support can be identified."
Chris Jones, at Chalvedon school in Essex, says that tracking of student performance and behaviour can be used to identify successful practice, so it can be exemplified or "bottled" for replication. "Staff need the support of good evidence," he says, "and that is what these systems can and should provide."
* "Tracking for Success" can be downloaded from www.standards.dfes.gov.uk, document ref: 1545-2005FLR-EN.
* A list of MIS products is available at www.becta.org.uk. Go to "leadership" in the "schools" section and click on MIS. There is also a link to a useful self-evaluation matrix for assessment for learning.
* www.pupiltracking.com; 0800 2989198.
* Sleuth is available from the School Software Company: www.schoolsoftwarecompany.com; 0871 711 5345.
* Bromcom Computers: www.bromcom.com.
* More on MIS and the role of ICT in Every Child Matters: Online magazine, June 23 and www.tes.co.uk/online/web_extra_stories.
Main text: Caroline Roberts Illustration: Brett RyderAdditional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Drug testing The Complete Classroom: issues and solutions for teachers by Steven Hastings (Routledge, £15.99) offers a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing modern schools. Based on The Issue series, this easy-to-digest guide is available from TES Books on 0870 444 8633; www.tes.co.uk/bookshop.
Did you know?
* Tracking isn't just about keeping data on academic attainment. Attendance and behaviour issues can also have a huge impact on pupil progress and some schools have systems in place for tracking these in detail
* It's not the data itself that's important - it's what you do with it
* Some schools display common targets in classrooms and individual targets on pupils' desks
* The large amount of data generated by efficient tracking procedures can create logistical headaches; management information systems (MIS) have not kept pace with the data generated
* There are around 20 software companies providing MIS for schools
* From this summer a new web-based system will be available to download from the DfES
CASE STUDY: ROYAL MANOR ARTS COLLEGE, DORSET
Behaviour tracking software has certainly made my pastoral role a lot easier. Until we started using Sleuth four years ago, our system was entirely paper-based. It was unwieldy, and we needed something that could pull all the data together and analyse it. The way the information is presented is visual, which can be a powerful tool when you're working with individual students. They can see their behaviour patterns clearly mapped out on a graph, and this has a lot more impact than a collection of incident reports on bits of paper.
With one student, the data revealed that 85 per cent of his negative behaviour occurred in lessons taught by female teachers. He hadn't accepted this until he was confronted with the pie chart. It was a great way into a conversation about why he respected male members of staff more than female.
Some students don't realise the effect their behaviour is having on others and it can be a wake-up call for them, too. We had one Year 7 boy who didn't recognise that his behaviour was any worse than his peers'. When we showed him a comparison table he was shocked and made a huge effort to improve. Obviously, you have to use your discretion with that sort of thing as some pupils might see generating the highest number of incident reports in the year group as giving them a bit of kudos.
As a year head, I have to attend exclusion meetings, and you need to have a clear list of the incidents that have taken place. In the past, it used to take ages to dig out all the information, but now it's all there at the click of a button. It's also much easier to share it with parents, and is particularly useful when they don't want to accept there's a problem with their child. You can put the hard evidence in front of them, and it can be an eye-opener.
Of course, it's not all about negative behaviour. One of the reasons we chose Sleuth is that it can be used to record positive behaviour, too. We use it to manage our reward system and it does things such as generating praise postcards. An artist on the staff designed a card with a picture of Portland, the island where we're situated, and the students love them. And even with negative behaviour, it's now much easier to turn it into positive targets. You can show a student a graph of their behaviour over time and say, "This is where we are now and you need to bring it down to this". It's much more realistic and motivating than saying to them, "Don't do that again".
As well as looking at individual pupils, the system is useful in tracking behaviour trends across the whole school. The findings can sometimes take you by surprise. In the first year, we compared the number of disruptive incidents at different times of the day, fully expecting to find that they were more frequent in the last period of the afternoon. However, the data clearly showed it was the lesson after morning break that was the most problematic. It highlighted the fact that some pupils tended to be hyper when they came back from break, so we adjusted the timing and got rid of the vending machines selling junk food. Things have been a lot calmer since.
One of the difficulties that can arise when you use a tracking system like this is that it relies on staff logging the data. To make it easier, we have a paper tick sheet that's set up like the Sleuth screen. A member of the admin staff then inputs these on to the computer. We feel it's not realistic to go fully electronic yet. There's also the fact that everyone has slightly different tolerance levels when it comes to behaviour.
However, at meetings we share the data and discuss how we use the system, and this helps us to synchronise our responses to things that happen. It's enabling us to be more consistent in the way we deal with behaviour throughout the school.
Graeme Sawyer is head of Year 10 and head of learning support at Royal Manor arts college, Portland, Dorset