The world would be a boring place if we were all the same. So, why do we still accept using one or two key pieces of management software in our schools?
For many teachers like myself, some will be able to remember a day when teachers sat with feet up upon their desks, or smoking in department offices and planning union revolts in the staffroom. It was the norm. Readers may also be able to recall the earlier incarnations of an MIS (Management Information System) when teachers started to complete electronic registers! Deputy headteachers told classroom teachers up and down the country:
“Yes, no more paper! You’ll be able to send the class register by radio signal, which travels back to the school reception.”
In the late 1990s, I remember using Facility ePortal (by CMIS), Bromcom and then moving to another school where I started using SIMS in 1997 (by Capita) for lesson registration, timetables, behaviour and rewards. The lowest point in my MIS career-history, was a school using an unlicensed and illegal MIS for student data! I know, shocking.
So, in my 23 years working in schools I have used just 4 different platforms, with at least 5 of those working from paper.
Did you know, SIMS is only used in 2,893 secondary schools, yet is used by 13,854 primary schools! (The Eduware Network: Market Statistics). I know there are many more primary than secondary schools which explains the difference. In this post I ask two key questions: is it time for SIMS to move over? Or for SIMS to start adapting to meet the needs of our teachers and schools at a more affordable price?
Screenshot of SIMS platform
I hope you find it useful.
90%+ of UK schools are still customers of the two big companies whose somewhat lumbering products have dominated this space for twenty years. (@domnorrish)
According to this TES article (2011), the origin of SIMS has been surrounded with controversy. This is due to the fact that private fortunes were made from a system developed with public money. And for many schools, costs are escalating significantly with charges from the dominant supplier, now between 2.5 and 3 times their 1999 levels … Even in 1994 when the business was re-sold to the Capita group, SIMS was valued at £10m and boasted a turnover of £13.5m!
In a Schools Week comment thread, @TonyParkin says:
Phil Neal’s SIMS system was a godsend for the teachers who had to accumulate and enter data. But this was NOT a school management information system, rather a data-capture system on behalf of the DfE and the Local Authority! The widespread success of SIMS was down to the fact that it was the best at meeting the LA needs, and the purchasing of ‘MIS’ systems was done at LA level. And guess what happened? Competing systems that arguably better met the needs of the school were forced out of the market in the 90s. The core business of a school is teaching and learning. Many MIS systems, including SIMS, did not attempt to do any management of teaching and learning, or at best had bolt-on modules that half-heartedly approached it. So guess what, teachers and schools were required to use systems that managed stuff like Form 7 that they cared little about, but which didn’t help them manage their core business. Is it surprising that [SIMS] are not always seen by teachers as helpful, but rather as bureaucratic imposition?
But it was Cameron’s reply in Schools Week (print) on Friday 4th December 2015 that made me think, enough is enough; it’s time to blog.
Schools can of course, move to other management information providers who are chomping at the bit to take some of Capita SIMS market share – but most are reluctant to move away from ports they know well. This stickiness has meant competitors have struggled to break into the market with new solutions. In the UK monopoly [power] is generally defined as when one company controls more than 24% of the market. At the last count, Capita SIMS has a market share of 83% which has been the position from many years. This monopoly arose not because it was the best system on the market, but because it was the only system and was purchased wholesale by local authorities, not directly by schools.
An interesting blog by Joshua Perry (@bringmoredata) offers some incredible findings. He says:
What jumps out immediately is that Capita’s SIMS clearly knows how to hold on to an 83% market share … I pointed out that SIMS had seen a significant reduction in schools using the system between 2012 and 2013. Well, the new data shows that they have reversed those losses (and then some) by Spring 2014. At the last count, they were serving 18,206 schools. (Incidentally I recently discovered that SIMS really doesn’t like selling licenses that start on any day other than April 1st. So, I guess it follows that Spring is when all their annual gains show up.)
Image and blog by @BringMoreData
As @MikeRCameron continues to write:
‘SIMS does not only collate school management information needs. It has expanded its software offering into many areas of school. For me this is problemnatic. This prevents innovation; because of its ubiquity any potential provider of technology solutions to schools to become a technical partner with Capita SIMS, the very organisation it would be intending to compete with.
And this will almost always be an unfair bargaining position with SIMS completely dominant. Simply put, to try to compete in school software market, a company has to pay Capita SIMS. And not small amounts either. In a sense they are acting as the gatekeeper to their own monopoly. And the reason competitors haven’t broken into the market isn’t because of great love of the existing systems. The ‘stickiness’ isn’t because schools don’t want something different or better (you only have to speak to a random selection of schools do understand that they do). It’s because the ‘market’ in school MIS systems have allowed those backing systems to be created … There was a time when the DfE intended to overhaul this market that its actions appear only to have added to existing long-standing status quo. Perhaps it’s time they have another look.’
Thank you Cameron for brining such an important issue to the fore. You can read more of his views on this issue in his blog.
How often have you found yourself in the IT server room, or seen a member of staff looking like this in the image above? I know I have been there many times, trying to understand why the server is down. Why has the overnight backup failed? Why is the connectivity around the school is so slow? SIMS is now becoming more and more cloud based, with a number of schools signing up to an improved network and solution.
There may be many reasons for these local IT issues, but how much of these can be resolved via the cloud? In over 18,000 schools? And issues are not just because of the SIMS and how it is setup in the schools where I have worked. But, how much of how the SIMS platform is set up, can be improved to help the end-user and school networks? For years we have hosted our own solutions.
After another difficult day using SIMS to organise cover, I tweeted the following frustrations. The CEO founder, @Phil_Neal contacted me after the above tweet and as a result, we are meeting on-site at my school before half-term.
Management Information Systems (MIS) were introduced in the 1980s to save teachers time … The largest database model that schools can purchase is Capita SIMS, used by an astonishing 83 per cent of UK schools, bar Scotland. Its penetration is a product of its history. Originally created by Bedfordshire teacher @Phil_Neal in the 1980s, it was later snapped up by FTSE100 private company Capita in 1994. SIMS – short for schools information management system – was created by Neal to save the time he spent as a teacher producing pupil reports. By gathering all the information on each child into one system, his reports could be generated automatically and so saved its creator, then subsequent customers, hours of writing. Nothing like it had existed before. (Source)
Image and blog by @BringMoreData
Feedback and Conclusions:
Some teachers also wished to share their views. Here a pick of the best I have received before publishing this post.
Comment: There are some excellent alternatives to capita who I presume own and market SIMS amongst other things? Having previously worked for an ARK academy, I can recommend most of their operating systems as brilliant and would love to know about how to get hold of this type of ‘stuff’ in our school. We also have huge problems with employee benefits and payroll using Capita. Everything from lack of communication to failure to process pay-rises etc. (by @emmabradielove )
My experience of SIMS is that I have used it for 21 years. As part of my 1st SLT role, I managed SIMS, used the options module, assessment manager, set up learning gateway and I have written timetables using Nova T6. I therefore have always had a love/hate relationship with it. I see their near-monopoly on schools as part of the problem. In state schools the support is for SIMS, and therefore it’s hard for schools to move away from it which means there is no real competition. In turn, this means no real development or improvements. Things are added as a bolt on module, always at a high cost (in touch for example, is double the cost of similar systems). The SQL servers quickly fill up and clog up the network as the database is old and poorly designed (IMO) which is why, as any timetabler will tell you, it’s prone to crashing. Capita support can be good once you get past the second line, but before then it’s a frustrating experience which is why many authorities take out SLA s with third parties, which in turn reinforces their near monopoly! My current school uses iSAMs which is web-based (it gets rid of the server stresses and issues for the network manager) and it is simple, quick and intuitive. I was worried so much, as my academic deputy role relies on the MIS. Not knowing iSAMS might be an issue but it just works, both at home and in school. Fewer bugs, it never crashes and is very user-friendly. More about them here: http://www.isams.com/about-us/our-story/ (by @nfordteacher)
Joshua Perry (@BringMoreData) sums this up perfectly for the education system at large;
I do think that commissioners (like academy trusts and local authorities) can play an important role in increasing competition in the marketplace. For example, they could structure procurements in a way that creates room for more than one vendor to share the business … Ultimately, if purchasers want to see more innovation, they have to create a procurement environment that allows smaller vendors a fighting chance. (Source)
Taking the lead from @DomNorrish, if we were to design an MIS from the ground up to help schools, teachers and perhaps even students use the platform better (for learning); these are suggestions from Norrish that I have used and adopted in some cases;
- Drop the price! SIMS is ridiculously expensive …
- Improve the appearance. Design a system for the end-user in mind. It can be clunky to use, dull as dishwater to look at and rarely gets your blood racing with excitement. Rather than institutional feel offering information, provide teachers with data they need now (e.g. what is their target for the lesson they’re currently in?)
- Push relevant droplets of data to users on a ‘need to know’ basis. Automatically reveal things about learners that we didn’t know – uncovering patterns and relationships between factors – which teachers can be too overwhelmed to consider.
- Providing simple and usable analytical tools for staff who want to dig deeper into what the data reveals, and without the school needing a gatekeeper with a background in statistics and a black-belt in Excel to process this.
- Make the platform available anywhere and on everything, yet still meeting schools’ security and data protection needs, without VPNs, horrible web-interfaces or expensive third-party apps!
Thank you to @MikeRCameron for sparking my thoughts which has pushed me to write a blog about SIMS, one I have been holding off for years. To @TonyParkin for his ICT expertise and brashness in the @SchoolsWeek article in November 2015 … and thanks to @BringMoreData and @DomNorrish whose blogs have been invaluable and provoking.
As one person who has commented on the original TES article says;
The software has been extensively developed at a cost to those willing to take the chance. They deserve the rewards. It’s a shame that the council didn’t employ someone as sharp as the team who wrote the software. There may have been a different result.
I look forward to meeting @Phil_Neal before half-term. I’m sure he is keen to listen to our ideas and how we can make the system even better for teachers to use and to support students.