SIMS has not been known for ease of use, but 'Discover' might change that, says Gerald Haigh
SIMS Discover screenshot'SIMS Discover': waiting for lift-off?Two years ago we went to Capita’s Bedford offices to see a presentation of SIMS Discover ahead of its launch at BETT 2010. Since then it’s been gradually growing underneath the radar, perhaps because schools have had other things on their collective minds.

Now Discover has been nominated for a BETT Award, and there are signs of growing awareness of what it can do. Will BETT 2012 mark the start of real lift-off for this innovative Capita product?

Discover, as you may know, is a graphical analysis tool, included as part of a school's SIMS annual licence agreement. It has been designed to enable school leaders to explore and present the data from the SIMS MIS (management information system), on a single screen. Using drag-and-drop, they can make comparisons and create strikingly effective graphs and diagrams.

In the piece I wrote on this website on December 16, 2009 ("BETT gets 'concept car' of schools admin software") I described Discover as “…a  whole new look for SIMS, a bold attempt to tackle the inherent problem of all sophisticated software, which is how to maintain a balance between deep and wide functionality on the one hand and ease of use by busy multi-tasking people on the other.” Achieving that was always going to be challenging, and it’s probably not surprising that general awareness and appreciation of Discover has been something of a slow burn.

'Discover' nominated for BETT Leadership and Management award

Now, though, Discover is nominated for a BETT Award in the Leadership and Management section, so maybe it’s starting to happen. Certainly that was the view of Capita SIMS head of product management Graham Cooper when I talked to him about Discover. He confessed some disappointment at the take-off trajectory of Discover, putting it down to a number of factors to do with priorities and pressures in schools and local authorities.

Essentially, though, I guess this is one of those products that has to be seen in action, in context, before it’s fully appreciated – and the people who make decisions about this kind of thing have too much to do already. (So much excellent management software suffers from that. 4Matrix, for example, another analysis tool up for a BETT Award comes to mind.)

For example, a quick demonstration (see video above) will show you that you can create separate groups of children – defined by behaviour, say, or attendance, or attainment in particular subjects, and put them together in a Venn diagram, which shows the number of children on each node. You’ll think that’s attractive, but if you’re not paying attention you might miss the fact that you can drill into each of those numbers and instantly bring up a list of the actual children, with whatever data SIMS holds on them, including a photograph if there is one. Not only that, the group is ‘dynamic’, which is to say it will change – and create alerts -- as children enter and leave it.

The potential for early intervention with groups and, importantly, with individuals, is obvious. Given that if you have SIMS you already have  Discover that seems like a good deal to me. And sure enough, word to that effect is starting to come back from users. Graham’s had some enthusiastic emails from schools, with illustrative screenshots of Venn diagrams identifying key groups of students. One arrived with the heading. “Look what I’ve been ‘Discovering”!

Sara Rushton, who looks after data at  St Catherine's Academy in Bolton certainly bore that out when I phoned her about “Discover”. Almost before I could speak she said “It’s brilliant”.

It’s not difficult to see why that is in her case. She keeps up a feed of relevant data to key members of staff. Before she started with Discover that meant exporting data to Excel in order to manipulate it and make graphs. Discover, though, does all that: “It’s easier to use, and more meaningful. I’m amazed how easy it is to drill down into and identify key groups.”

More information

Discovery, SIMS and OpenHive will be part of a range of services demonstrated by Capita at BETT 2012.
See also "BETT gets 'concept car' of schools admin software" 

BETT logoBETT 2012, January 11-14
Olympia, London
Capita SIMS: stand D20


Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a freelance journalist and the author of Inspirational – and Cautionary – Tales for Would be School Leaders (Routledge) and Jobs and Interviews Pocketbook (Teachers' Pocketbooks). You can follow him on Twitter.