Part of Essex County Council, Target Tracker develops software for schools. Its Primary Target Tracker application—which provides information to support learning—ran on Microsoft Excel spreadsheet software.
To stay ahead of its competitors, Target Tracker rebuilt the solution using SQL Database in Windows Azure. The firm now has an application that scales to meet the needs of thousands of schools in England and overseas.
Essex County Council is among the largest local authorities in the United Kingdom (U.K.). Formed in 1999 as part of the council’s Schools, Children, and Families directorate, Target Tracker produces software that supports around 5,000 subscribers across many
local authorities. It plays a vital role in raising children’s achievement levels.
More than 2,000 schools in the U.K. have adopted the Primary Target Tracker solution. This helps them to support each child’s learning with the right teaching, and identify issues or trends in the classroom. It provides access to critical information, such
as teacher assessment and test results.
||We used to be uncomfortable about moving sensitive information electronically, so we always worked onsite. Now we work remotely because we’re confident in the security of the technology.
| Darren Cole
Nigel Green, Business Development Manager, Target Tracker, Essex County Council, says: “A head teacher would use the application to identify the progress of children in a particular year. An assessment coordinator, on the other hand, would use it to assess
the effectiveness of a particular intervention programme.”
Schools are subject to regular and vigorous inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). Green says: “Primary Target Tracker helps schools meet Ofsted requirements to understand children’s progress and quickly
identify and resolve any gaps in learning.”
Darren Cole, Project Manager, Target Tracker, Essex County Council, says that the organisation has always sought to be highly innovative in its use of technology. This, and an increase in market competition, inspired it to re-develop Primary Target Tracker,
which ran on Microsoft Excel spreadsheet software. Cole says: “Each school’s data was stored locally, so users needed to carry information on memory sticks if they wanted to access it outside the school. We wanted to update our application to reflect the very
latest in IT—the use of the cloud to store data.”
The Target Tracker team considered a few different options, including Amazon Web Services, but found they couldn’t meet the application’s exact needs. First, it was vital that the solution could support extreme fluctuations in activity. Cole says: “Towards
the end of the academic year, for example, there’s a significant spike in demand for information as schools examine their end-of-year data. Schools then have their summer break at the end of July, which means there’s far less activity for six weeks.”
The organisation turned to Windows Azure SQL Database, a cloud database service built on SQL Server technologies. With it, companies can scale to multiple databases quickly and easily, while paying only for what they use. Cole says: “We chose to develop Primary
Target Tracker on Windows Azure because it manages rapid changes in demand and we don’t have to introduce expensive servers in-house that remain idle for long periods of time.” Windows Azure is a managed service, saving Cole and his small team of 25 the time-consuming
tasks of installing, updating, or maintaining hardware and software.
Most schools using Primary Target Tracker now run the new SQL Database version. For these schools, data is held in the cloud. The Microsoft .NET Framework 4 client application offers an intuitive interface based on familiar Microsoft Office tools, and information
is presented graphically, making it easy for users to interpret, add to, or share with colleagues.
Each school is assigned a secure logon key and members of staff have individual logons set with relevant user permissions. “The data is pulled down to the local system only as required and none of it is stored there, which is vital for security,” says Cole.
In the U.K., the Data Protection Act ensures that schools apply appropriate levels of protection to sensitive data. To classify this data, Target Tracker and the Essex County Council Information Assurance team worked with Microsoft to deliver a detailed security
and risk assessment in accordance with information management policy.
Today, more than 11 per cent of English primary schools use Primary Target Tracker, with around 300 new subscribers each year. David Wilde, Chief Information Officer, Essex County Council, says: “With Primary Target Tracker storing more than 150 million individual
assessments in the cloud, teaching staff can quickly and securely access critical data from any location.”
• Scalable system supports rapid growth.
Target Tracker can easily scale the solution to meet the needs of any number of new schools. Cole says: “It’s a five-minute job to create a new SQL Database when we need one.”
• Cloud solution accelerates setup.
With Windows Azure, it’s easier to upload a new school’s data into the system. Cole says: “We used to be uncomfortable about moving sensitive information electronically, so we always
worked onsite. Now we work remotely because we’re confident in the security of the technology.”
• Managed solution keeps costs down.
“If we hadn’t developed Primary Target Tracker on Windows Azure, we’d have seen staff numbers increase to help manage the solution. We’d also have had to rent a rack of servers, for
which we’d need to buy software and security updates,” says Cole. “Schools can now download the application, which cuts the cost of mailing several thousand software CDs. Total savings are in excess of £10,000.”
• Trusted technology drives new business.
“The Microsoft name carries a great deal of credibility and helps me alleviate fears the schools have, especially in terms of security,” says Green. “Using Windows Azure, we have
developed Primary Target Tracker into a highly innovative and easy-to-use application.”
• Data availability is assured.
SQL Database offers a 99.9 per cent service level agreement with built-in redundancy. Cole says: “If something happened to our data centres, the data would still be available—this is vital
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Document published July 2012