British debate over IT standards

British agency adopting US model for sharing information about students.

In the US, we have No Child Left Behind. In Britain, seemingly always moving in lockstep with America, there's the Every Child Matters agenda. And as NCLB has imposed substantial information systems requirements on school systems, ECM also requires a steady flow of information about student performance between schools, local agencies and the national government.

But, in the UK, information flow has been hampered by incompatible sytems. That may soon change, The Guardian reports, as Becta, the government edtech agency, finalizes standards for student information exchange.

The standards will govern interoperability of all IT systems - how they communicate and work together. They will define, for example, in what format a child's address, assessment data, attendance records and so on should be recorded and the level of detail required. Every company will have to adhere to the same standard so all of their packages should work together with no sticking points.

Besides enabling the sharing of information between schools and with local authorities and other agencies (known as "vertical interoperability" in tech-speak), standardisation will make it easier for the different components of schools' own IT set-up - virtual learning environment (VLE), information management, library, attendance, assessment - to communicate with each other and share files without the need to re-enter or reformat the information to suit different software (horizontal interoperability).

The standards will be based on the American model, the Schools Interoperative Framework (Sif). And most everyone agrees that standards are good. But the devil is in the details and some very big players are unhappy.

Phil Neal, director of Sims, the leading provider of information management systems to schools in the UK, is unhappy with Becta's decision to adopt the US model, arguing that it will not match the ways schools' IT has evolved here.

"In the US systems grew up for different tasks so they would have one system for pupil records and another for attendance and another for assessment," he says. "As a result schools ended up having to input and maintain separate databases for a wide range of functions. In the UK, systems have been integrated almost from the start."

Neal thinks Sif will cause major disruption and cost Sims up to a million pounds, which will drive up the costs to schools.

But Becta says the model is solid and well-tested.

Defending the decision to opt for Sif, Paul Shoesmith, Becta's assistant director of technical policy, says it has already been proven to work not only in schools in the US but in Canada and Australia. "We don't want to reinvent a wheel. If there are proven models, that's what we want to go with," he says.

Becta has definitely not lost sight of learning, he adds. "If anything, we are more concerned about the use of data within schools and want to see a position where it is being used more effectively to support learners and practitioners."