Becta puts £550m price tag on 'uncompetitive' schools MIS, and Gerald Haigh asks whether the Coalition 'gets' ICT yet

Abraham Guest High, WiganMIS handles pupil data throughout schools: Abraham Guest, High, WiganIn 1896, when Edward, Prince of Wales was ill, Poet Laureate Alfred Austin wrote a poem containing the celebrated couplet: "Across the wires the electric message came, He is no better, he is much the same.”

Had he been alive today, Alf, up to speed with technology as he clearly was, could have written in similar vein of the state of management information systems (MIS) in UK schools. The new Becta MIS report, after all, concludes that the market for MIS now, compared with the position at time of the 2005 Report, remains just as uncompetitive.

"School management information systems and value for money 2010" shows that the market is still dominated by a single supplier, still distorted by statutory returns, still held back by the absence of mandatory interoperability and still supported by lots of relatively small local authority teams.

The most striking bit of this is the single-supplier dominance. Six MIS suppliers, it seems, share the vast majority of the nation’s schools between them. The outside observer might take this to mean that there’s a ding-dong battle going on, with boardrooms and shareholders eagerly awaiting the yearly news of who is ahead.

Not a bit of it. Capita’s SIMS, according to the report, has 80 per cent of the market. Its nearest rival, RM, has 9 per cent. Nobody else is anywhere, except, arguably, Serco, whose market share has doubled over five years from 3 to 6 per cent, and is strongly signalling big future plans.

It’s actually been more or less like that for as long as I’ve been writing about MIS, which I suppose is around 25 years. Over that time, numerous other suppliers have sprung up, confidently believing that their product would enable them to take a significant share of the market away from SIMS.

Market domination not in the interests of customers

It hasn’t happened though. Some competitors have gone, others have merged or, like SIMS itself, become part of much larger organisations, and the overwhelming domination of the market by SIMS continues. Whatever the reasons for this, the clear message from the Becta report is that it’s not in the interests of customers.

My view is that it’s not even healthy for Capita in the long term. Any business person will claim that close competition between suppliers, all convinced of the quality of their offerings, keeps everybody sharp, promotes innovation and research, makes for informed customers, keeps the market on the radar of the wider business world, and creates a pool of mobile, lively and hungry managers and technical experts

Here’s an idea, just go to BETT and ask the leaders at Capita, or Serco, or RM or any of the others if they lack faith in their products or are afraid of competition. Take it from me, every one of them is totally and genuinely convinced that they’re the best, which is how it should be.

The sections in the report on procurement bear directly on this “single supplier” issue, because they point out how rarely contracts come up for open competition. The details are complicated, but for local authorities intent on staying within the law they are required reading.

One of the problems is the way an MIS is regularly updated by the supplier. What exactly are these updates? Do they count as “software maintenance”, or is there new functionality? Is it even, in effect, a new product? If so, then procurement regulations come into play. (And with fully cloud-based MIS just round the corner, the question “Is this an update or a new product, subject to the full panoply of procurement?” is going to come into sharp focus.)

There’s more in this vein, and the report concludes that, “It is considered crucial that in the light of the findings of this report, all local authorities review their MIS procurement arrangements in advance of their next contract renewal to determine the status of arrangements under EU and UK procurement law.”

Of course the real concern in all this is around costs. Schools are projected to spend £550 million on MIS over the five-year term of this parliament. Every one of the problems listed as “much the same” at the head of this article plays its part in keeping that figure high. One way to reduce the figure, says Becta, is to make it easier for suppliers to compete with each other, within European and UK Law.

Would MIS framework bring savings or more bureaucracy?

Becta also wants to see a mandated interoperability framework that will free up customers to pick and mix their management software and the report also calls for a five-year freeze by the Government on its considerable, and expensive, statutory returns. (The Coalition is opposed to bureaucracy after all, so here’s a chance for them to step up to their own mark.)

Licensing costs, says Becta, are currently going up by 6 per cent a year, and should be kept under control in part by only going for software enhancements that are actually needed to do the job. There are savings to be made, too, says Becta, by local authorities sharing support teams.

Also with cost saving in mind, Becta emphasises the economies to be had from central procurement. It call for, “The establishment of a cost-effective national or central MIS procurement mechanism, with associated advice and guidance, which local authorities and schools would then have the freedom to use.”

Such a framework would have significant set-up and running costs, which factor in the likelihood of there being more competition and so more call for guidance. Becta’s sums, though, show a considerable net saving. (Mind you, there’ll be some, I guess, who’ll need to be convinced of the real savings likely to stem from the setting up of a bureaucracy, to say nothing of the prospect of dealing regularly with European and UK procurement bodies.)

Finally, there’s a strong call for the removal of the practice whereby a school that becomes an Academy finds that the supplier won’t allow the MIS licence to be transferred across. The school has to buy a new licence for the same MIS it’s been using for years, Becta clearly sees this as an injustice, calling it “Double Charging”.

Well, the elephant-shaped space in this room, of course, is that Becta is no more. It went while this report was in preparation. The final paragraph of the document, though, strongly emphasises that its recommendations, carried out to the full, would go a long way towards helping the Coalition Government achieve its educational objectives while at the same time keeping costs under control.

There’s a beautiful irony in the way that these powerful arguments, all intended to serve the government’s intentions in the most cost-effective way, are being put forward by a body that the Coalition has summarily dumped. The best hope, maybe, is that policy makers will cough discreetly, pick up the recommendations and present them as their own. I guess we’d all settle for that. We’ve lived long enough to know that’s how it works.

Little sign of commitment to the central, transforming role of ICT in schools

Mind you, for me there’s a question more fundamental than whether the Coalition is ready to absorb Becta’s recommendations. It’s whether the Government actually appreciates just how important to its own declared educational agenda is the role of ICT in gathering, analysing and presenting pupil data. I’m not at all sure they do.

So far, there’s been relatively little sign of any real full-hearted commitment to the central, transforming role of ICT in schools. There’s still a feeling that, on the face of it, in at least some areas of its awesome responsibilities the Government is ready to rely more on gut feelings and seat-of-the-pants judgments than on the analysis of good evidence. But, hey, maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll welcome this report, realising that somehow, without losing face, they’ll have to take it, and the expertise that created it, on board.

More information

"School management information systems and value for money 2010"

Becta 2005 report: "School Management Information Systems and Value for Money"

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)  His regular Five Things To Think About columns can be seen on the National College's Future website.
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