What good is freedom of choice, asks Gerald Haigh, if schools don't exercise it?
Car salesYou’ve decided to change your car. It’s been a long and difficult road, reading the magazines, accosting people on car parks, arguing with your partner. But finally you’ve done it. It’s cost you a lot of money, not least because you had to have the car port made bigger, and buy a special back support for your partner, who hates the new seats.

Then on the very next day, you’re stopped at a junction and your old car rolls smoothly up beside you. It looks a million dollars, newly valeted by your dealer. It sounds great too – you can hear it clearly, because your new car’s stalled at the lights yet again.

But enough of that. You know perfectly well what’s in my mind here. It’s your choice of management information systems. All schools have one these days, so if you’re shopping for a new one, it’s not about working with a clean sheet, it’s about making a change.

There’s lots to take account of – price of course (which means total cost of ownership including any hardware changes) but also maintenance, the ability to do all the things you’re used to, the need to learn new stuff, the hassle of dealing with a different set of quirks and traps for the unwary. (“Sorry to hold you up, mate. I’m trying to find the release for the fuel filler.”)

Edugeek always has good examples of the kind of issues that arise, and one poster, back in 2006, sums the whole thing up very neatly: “Migrating from one MIS to another is going to have some painful moments!”

That said, a fair number of schools and local authorities actually do go ahead and make the change, moving between the main players which include Capita’s SIMS, Serco's Facility, Pearson's e1 and RM's Integris.

They move, obviously, not only because their present MIS doesn’t fit with their priorities, but also they’ve seen another one that does. As schools become independent of local authorities, perhaps forming their own kinds of alliances and federations, they may well want to look again at what they want from their MIS.

The rapid growth of cloud computing adds another set of variables around functionality and hosting. Pearson Phoenix e1 and RM Integris G2 are examples of systems designed for central hosting and Serco is confident of breaking the MIS mould with its forthcoming web-based Progresso. To be launched later this year, “Progresso” is interestingly labelled as a “Management information platform”, designed to be easy to use and maintain and cheaper to run (Telford and Wrekin have just signed on early customers).

Capita, for its part, will soon launch Discover, which should make data analysis a lot easier and more intuitive. Previewed at BETT 2010, Discover is close to launch. It’s a fair assumption, too that Capita will bring a fully web-based SIMS to the table before too long.

And then, maybe, 2011 will be the year when it’ll be easier to move your MIS.

Will the Government act to build MIS competition?

Becta’s September 2010 Report on School Management Information Systems shows that organisation’s impatience with the lack of progress towards a truly competitive market, and it is understood that the Government, despite closing down Becta, intends to take action on interoperability and procurement, possibly with a new MIS framework.

By the way, it’s easy to assume because Capita has such an overwhelming share of the market, that “changing your MIS” is code for “leaving SIMS”. Sometimes it is, but there’s movement both ways. In 2010 Capita signed up 100 individual schools from other suppliers, as well as, in addition, capturing Norfolk and the primaries in North Yorkshire from the competition.

So it’s just possible that this year, when you go round BETT 2011, you may be genuinely looking at making the change. (“Is this rather odd character a genuine budget-holding customer? Or another pain-in-the-neck tyre-kicker wanting a free test drive?”)

With that in mind, I talked to one or two people, and particularly Paul Harrington, product manager at Serco Learning, about what’s involved in changing your MIS. (I have to thank Paul for allowing me to present his advice in a generic, non product-specific way.}

The advice always is that underpinning everything is the need to see this as a fundamental change, not just a swap from one piece of software to another. School leaders have to be committed and hands-on, creating a sense of purpose and a top-to-bottom understanding of why the change is being made. The steps along the way have to be set out and taken on board, and ideally incorporated into the school’s development or improvement plan.

Part of this means making sure people at classroom level are included. In effective schools, classroom teachers routinely use the MIS – logging on at registration or before, and using the system within their day to work. Ideally, then, they’ll have demonstrations and video presentations so they know what they’re going to be seeing on their screens, and how to manage their data and assessments.

Every MIS supplier, you assume, understands the way a teacher has to use the MIS in the presence of 30 lively young people. Throwing people in at the deep end is not the answer. The history of all management software is full of examples of innovations being scuppered by things going wrong at classroom level, sometimes provoking a reaction close to mutiny.

Paul Harrington points out that the need to keep teachers on board might well have a bearing on when the actual change of MIS is scheduled for. "We still get schools doing it during the summer holidays," he says. "But the main users of MIS now are the teaching staff, and during the holiday they’re not around to do the training and evaluations.”

If the migration has to be done in the summer, says Paul, one of the start-of-term training days should be given over to the new MIS.

None of this is easy, and it can’t be done too quickly – you’re looking at perhaps two or three months of close attention from leadership. I come back constantly to the local authority MIS manager who said to me, a long time ago, “Were you to show me an indisputably better product, I’d still say it’s not worth the hassle and retraining involved in making the change.”

It’s easy to see why a busy, understaffed and overworked support team can believe that – especially when they hear about users who’ve moved more than once, ending up back where they started.

Perhaps, though, it’s an attitude which, generally held, would discourage innovation and improvement. And, it seems to me, there’s something fundamentally negative about claiming to be happy with what you have but at the same time having no real knowledge of what else there is around. It’s not just a matter of knowing exactly why you want to change. For many it’ll be knowing precisely why they don’t need to.

BETT 2011 logo

BETT 2011, January 12-15
Olympia, London

 

Capita: stands MR4/K43
Pearson: stands B40/C40
RM: stands D80/E80
Serco: stand F20

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.
You can follow Gerald Haigh on Twitter.

 


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