School management information systems – what we discovered
This discovery phase has revealed a wide range of end-user needs but also shines the light on the needs of other stakeholders
18 November 2022
In our first blog post, we talked about why management information (MI) systems are so critical for schools and why considering user needs early makes a solution more likely to suit its purpose (and be adaptable) for years to come.
Our goal is to develop a needs-based specification for local authorities to procure a new system based on the needs of the user.
Speaking to the users
During the school holidays, we took the opportunity to speak with 14 people who work directly with local authorities. These people are primarily in support roles and work with management information systems every day.
We have also spoken with 11 school employees, who have direct access to SIMS.
Our discovery highlights how integrated Welsh schools, local authorities and government are.
This includes the needs of employees that:
- help to update the system
- extract data out of the systems for reporting purposes
- support the day-to-day running of schools
Feedback from schools
Schools told us that their employees have jobs to do. They need products and services that make their lives easier. This could mean recording attendance, finding out who has a nut allergy or setting up a new class.
Schools rely on SIMS every day.
School Management Information Systems (SIMS) offer huge opportunities. It can help schools and pupils with educational journeys. Yet, schools often struggle to meet their own needs and the needs of third parties such as local authorities and Welsh Government.
Requests for data often create overheads in schools. For example, schools may deal with requests for data:
- about free school meals on a random basis
- so that the NHS can plan their immunisations
- from internal and external partners as well as local authorities and externally
In some cases, making statutory returns consumed days of their time.
Schools are using other systems
As a result, schools are embracing modern technologies to meet their needs.
Schools go off the core platform to use a wide range of third-party modules. Some participants told us that “…SIMS hasn’t grown as it could have” and “the last major change was 2004.”
So far, we have heard of at least 29 different third-party modules that are used for:
- assessment and education
- management information and reporting
- payment apps
- documenting and creative tools
- and more…
Other feedback from schools includes:
“SIMS is difficult from top to bottom. Each module presents its own challenge in terms of its use”
“We are not experts in finance”
The more we speak with school employees, the more they explain how stepping off the core platform is helping them to get their work done.
Feedback from local authorities
We are discovering that local authorities play a key role in filling the gaps left by the supplier. This involves operational support and helping the school employees to upskill.
As a local authority, they may create their own system manuals. Some said that the ESS manuals didn’t feel user-friendly.
Some have created a Teams site where all schools can ask questions and see the answers.
Local authorities often struggle to get access to data from schools as the data is often hosted on a school’s own server on their premises.
Some positive feedback
For balance, Capita and ESS SIMS did receive positive feedback.
We’ve also heard that “you can get a report on anything,” “it is very flexible”, “SIMS is generally a good system” and “keen to see NextGen”.
As we deepen our understanding, it is becoming clearer that the needs of the system’s end users should be given more attention. They have potentially been overshadowed by a much broader set of stakeholder needs.
Forming a governance group
Since the beginning of the discovery, our team has been supported by a governance group. They have helped us get access to local authorities and schools to interview participants. Their advice and guidance have been critical to our success.
Unsurprisingly, as we entered August, the governance group were keen to explore what comes after discovery.
The needs have now been added to a procurement specification, ready for what we call ‘Phase 2’.
Over the last two weeks, the governance group has grown to include senior education professionals. We have reached out to local authorities to see if they’d be interested to run a procurement exercise/approach together.
There is now a sense of urgency to engage the market and start the procurement process as soon as possible.
In our next and final blog, we will talk more about the end of the discovery phase and how we will build upon these findings.
The one thing that has not been mentioned above is the cost of the Sims platform. It is expensive and the support schools and LA staff receive from ESS as an organisation can be “hit or miss”. From my point of view, it seems that at present ESS are “money orientated” and not concentrating on its customers\customer support and are trying to recoup the price they paid for the software when it was purchased from Capita. We have recently had a scenario where a school changed their DFES number with the Welsh Government which resulted in ESS trying to re-charge the school for all the same licences that was held at the “old” school. These were deemed to be “non-transferrable”. They conceded eventually but it did cause some anxiety for the school and the LA and has tainted the relationship a little between ESS and its customers