Capita ups the competition for parents' online payments in a bid to expand. Gerald Haigh reports
School dinners Brighton in 1944School dinners have come a long way since kids helped prepare the vegetables, like these in Brighton in 1944 (pic Wikimedia) – now online payments by parents are big business and Capita wants a shareParentPay, the first practical online secure payments system to enable parents to pay for school dinners, and items like uniforms and trips, has been steadily growing for 11 years. Over that time it has become established as the market leader.

Now big hitter Capita, after providing schools with its SIMS Dinner Money service, is ready to deal directly with parents and prune a pocket or two more with its new system, called SIMS Agora (appropriately, an agora was a "meeting place" or "market place" in Ancient Greece).

Capita's business rarely stays still. It is always looking to extend its activities with new services and also purchase other companies to further its reach. Recently it bought Northgate  Managed Services from its parent company, Northgate Information Solutions, in a £65 million deal. Northgate MS, based near Belfast, is well-known for its role managing Northern Ireland's schools network and its operations had extended with its success in providing ICT managed services for the now defunct Building Schools for the Future programme.

Online payment is unlike other home-school applications, such as parent gateways for online reporting. Not only is it directly parent-facing but it deals with matters dear to parents’ hearts – money and the welfare of their children, in particular whether they’re being fed or not! There’s a heavy premium, therefore, on reliability, accuracy, clarity and responsiveness.

ParentPay has clearly cracked most of the problems, and now Capita has to do the same to compete, using its considerable experience and resources and its already strong foothold in most of our schools. Game on, I’d say.

Cash in hand – or a drawer somewhere

Ask anyone who works in a school office about cash and they’ll throw up their hands in despair. A lady very well known to me, who worked for 20 years in a school office, provides a graphic description of tins of cash coming in from classrooms, sometimes having lost their identifying bits of paper on the way:

‘Trip money, dinner money, photograph money, tuck shop money. All in tins, bags and lying loose on the secretary’s desk. Nightmare!’

But that’s not all. Sometimes the hardest bit is being sure, for the sake of auditing and security, that everything’s recorded and above board. That’s why one of my top tips for school leaders and administrators, based on many years of experience of headship and governance, is: "Beware of cash. It can rear up and bite you."

Cash is bad news for parents, too. Here’s ParentPay's Lynne Taylor, herself a working parent, with a story from 2002: "My little girl was moving from infant school to junior. I had to order her uniform and send in the money and I added it up wrong. So in the course of putting it right I asked the secretary if she’d take my credit card. She said she wished she could."

'Piles of cash sticky with sweets'

Lynne TaylorParentPay's Lynne TaylorThe secretary then recited her own litany -- parents who can’t add up, cheques unsigned or with last year’s date, or wrongly made out, or hidden in a school bag soaked in orange squash, piles of cash sticky with sweets.

Since then, given how easy it has become to book holidays and buy groceries online, it’s not surprising that parents have increasingly disliked having to send cash and cheques into school, for dinners, trips, uniform and the like. A 2012 survey of 12,000 people by the catering managers’ professional association LACA (formerly Local Authorities Caterers Association) in association with online payment provider ParentPay, shows that more than 80 per cent of parents want to pay for school meals online. Nearly three quarters say, as you’d expect, that it’s more convenient.

There are other reasons too. More than 60 per cent want the reassurance that their money’s spent on a nutritious school meal rather than diverted to the local sweet shop or burger bar, and more than 40 per cent feel their child will be safer from bullying or theft.

All of that is enough to make online payment attractive, but there’s more again. Local authority caterers sell more food when dinner money isn’t being diverted elsewhere, school admin is streamlined and audit trails are secure. There’s a very useful bonus in that a good online system makes it possible to gather lots of useful data about take-up of meals, choices, preferences, and at every level from individual to national.  

Do you take cards?

Add all that up, and the systems that permit or encourage the payment of school money online with a credit or debit card (or through PayPoint terminals in local shops) start to make a lot of sense.

Which takes us back to 2002 again – Lynne Taylor and the harassed secretary. Lynne, a maths teacher already with a track record in the use of ICT within her school, thought about her encounter with the school and, when the opportunity presented itself, decided to do something about it.

"I did some research into online payment for parents and I could not believe that nobody was doing it," she said. As a result she devised and set up ParentPay, her own system for online payments into schools, signing up her first school in February 2003. Since then it’s been a story of steady growth, with vital links made to local authority and privately contracted caterers and cashless catering providers.

Other providers joined in when they saw the possibilities, but ParentPay is now firmly established as market leader with almost 3,000 school users and has developed into a multi-function, browser-based application that uses pupil data from whichever MIS is available in the school. Along the way, Lynne and her now 60-strong team have climbed a considerable learning curve. That’s partly to do with technology, but mainly it’s been about realising that by becoming part of the web of potentially sparky relationships around parents, children, school, food and money, they’ve become much more than a disinterested service provider.

"Suddenly you’re seen as the school," says Lynne. "We get emails saying, 'I just paid for the school trip. Does he need to take a packed lunch?' – that sort of thing."

They can’t answer those questions directly of course, but they do have to handle them in customer-friendly style and pass them on appropriately. They’re also an indication of just how potentially emotional this area is, where reliability is all.

Enter Capita SIMS Agora

Given the apparently unstoppable general trend towards online transactions, this is surely a market with room for newcomers. Capita undoubtedly thinks so, which is presumably why it's coming in with its own SIMS Agora online payment system, which I saw at the SIMS Partnership Schools Conference in November 2012, and was launched at BETT 2013.

Surrey school diners 1952Cash catering: Surrey school dinners 1942 (pic Wikimedia)As you’d expect from any Capita SIMS venture, this is not something that has been done without considerable preparation. They’re obviously very aware of what Lynne Taylor and her team have learned – essentially, that while engaging with parents about attendance, or classroom progress is one thing, it’s quite something else when the questions are,  "Will my child eat today?" or, "Will she stand weeping as the trip departs because the school thinks I haven’t paid?"

As a result, there’s heavy emphasis on the importance of reliability and the certainty that when a parent looks for the system on Sunday night to pay Monday’s dinner money, it will be instantly available and the payment will go through.

Capita also knows that each client – school, catering provider – will make their own particular demands, something else that ParentPay has learned about over a number of years. Capita, though, is hardly starting on the back foot. It has its own wealth of experience of public and private administration and finance. And through SIMS, of course, it has developed an unrivalled understanding of school systems and parental engagement.

Presumably based on existing experience, and searching for scalability and reliability, Capita has decided to make SIMS Agora a cloud service hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform. This adds Microsoft expertise to the mix together with security, backup and minimum downtime.

Given all of that it’s difficult to imagine that Capita won’t make a success of Agora. For her part, Lynne Taylor feels that ParentPay, a mature yet responsive product that’s constantly under review, with a still-growing customer base, is firmly positioned in an expanding market that has room for competitors. She’s had a good working relationship with Capita SIMS for many years, knows them well and appears totally relaxed.

"We don’t feel threatened," she concludes. "We’ve seen this coming from Capita for a long time – and we're quite surprised it hasn’t happened before."

More information 
Download the LACA 2012 survey from the ParentPay website here 
Capita SIMS Agora 

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a former teacher and headteacher and a long-established freelance writer of articles and books on education. Currently, a major part of his work is to write case studies, ebooks and blogs for Microsoft UK.

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