Taking stock of 2014/15 – and glimpsing the future with Capita SIMS

CIVbvNYWwAAXp8PAs is traditional at the SIMS Annual Conference, which took place in June at Alton Towers, Phil Neal (Managing Director of Capita SIMS) took to the stage to review the previous year – and give some insight into the company targets and highlights in the forthcoming year. This, I was able to follow-up with Phil later – as he kindly agreed to speak to me further to elaborate on some of the ideas for the future; and his own personal highlights and opinions on the sector and Education. That article will follow soon – but for now, on with an overview of what has happened and the road ahead…


In brief headlines

Perhaps the biggest current highlight is the ongoing changes to the Assessment System, following the removal of the “levels” system. As I have reviewed this year – Capita were proud to release “a compelling solution for primary assessment”. I would tend to agree that as solutions go to a moving and evolving target – it has fitted the needs of Schools. As Rachael told me before, and Phil repeated, the challenge they faces was of providing something that is ill defined. For this reason, Phil went on to explain to the delegates that this was deliberately held back to consult with schools – to try and strike a balance between too much and not enough data. The same is true of the Secondary solution, which is even harder to pin a specification on. So far, feedback on the Primary solution is reported to be good – although some Head teachers have fed back that teachers think it is more comprehensive than they need. If that’s the only criticism, I think that actually, that could be viewed as a good thing – since the solution that has been developed is flexible enough that you can pick and choose how deep you go.

Exams Organiser has to be one of the oldest original remaining sections of SIMS – but, if it isn’t broken don’t fix it! Exams is one of the most stable – and most critical of the SIMS elements, so changes are only made sparingly. It has received some functional changes over the past year – with an improved timetabling option and better reporting. The reporting outputs (including broadsheets) enhancements have come as a result of taking advantage of the main SIMS.net reporting engine, and the reports are now present in the main interface.

Capita have also been supporting the development of the A2C project, and disappointingly, the major investments and work completed so far will go largely unseen for the time being as the project continues to be beset by delays.

Lastly – the launch of SIMS Service Manager (SSM); which actually is a much bigger thing than it seems at first glance. You would, on an initial look see this as a purely technical and development enhancement – but actually this is a coming together of how SIMS will operate in the future and underpins many of the new and redeveloped components released. Without SSM, projects such as the Teacher App (see later), Agora enhancements, InTouch and others in future to be sure; would be much more of a challenge. SSM has been designed to lessen the pain of adopting new Capita services which tie into SIMS, and also improve reliability – particularly InTouch. A recent pain point – B2B will also be moving into SSM

Technically speaking…

As far as technical changes go – SSM is obviously in there as a major technical change. This subsequently allowed for the fundamental changes to remove the VPN requirement for InTouch. Having a central “control” and data access platform for additional services has also meant that installation have been simplified – which in turn has lead to reductions in the cost of adoption and ownership of these products.

Also, platform support continues – with SQL 2014 support added (although there is a known issue which Microsoft are working to resolve), and with the forthcoming release of Windows 10 – SIMS support for the OS shouldn’t be far behind.

The development of the Teacher App (covered in depth elsewhere on my Blog), led to some other interesting work – in a new area for Capita. Aside the actual App development – investigation and development had to take into the world of identity management. The App uses Windows Live, Google and most recently Office 365 identities.

The Solus 2 and Solus 3 debacle has been going on for long enough. Solus 3 (at least from my own personal experience) has matured well – and is now a stable and fully fledged product. You get much better results from using Solus 3 for your deployment, not to mention reliability. With that in mind – Solus 2 will finally come to an end Spring 2016. The resilience and capabilities to handle issues make Solus 3 a valuable asset to the School (and LA/Support Unit) armoury – which is shown by the increased percentage of users. I am hoping to get some figures on this, but they were not available at the time of writing. The post will be updated once I receive them.

Other products

There have also been many other smaller changes to many of the products in the SIMS suite. A summary of these is as follows:

  • Staff Performance: additional reporting capabilities and general fit and finish enhancements have been made to the HR and CPD solution
  • My Account: SupportNet was finally retired; and although there were initial hickups with My Account (the replacement) – the system is now in full use – offering improved forums, change requests (including the ability to have dialog with the product teams from this), and documentation.
  • FMS: Agora support is now included, so purchases made through the “shopfront” can now be reconciled in FMS. There have also been a number of statutory changes
  • Agora: Cashless catering support has been added finally
  • InTouch: Aside from the SSM improvements, following a number of high profile occurrences, spam filtering has now been built into the system. There have also been many performance improvements, many as a result of the SSM adoption.
  • Teacher App: This was launched at BETT 2015 for iOS, and since then it has gone on to be multi platform with versions for Windows 8.1 and Android.
  • Azure Hosted SIMS: As profiled earlier in the year, Capita launched a cost effective hosting system for SIMS based on the Microsoft Azure platform.

A road ahead

Customary on day one is a little glimpse into the future – a guide on the more immediate future that the products are taking, and the areas of emphasis. Cue many Support Teams furiously taking notes to prepare themselves for the road ahead!

Not surprisingly, with the continuing change and evolution in the Assessment arena – SIMS Assessment Manager (and its associated parts) will be area of focus. A couple of key headlines include the functionality to support Secondary Schools; and new functionality and reports for formative progress. Discover will also pick up graphs to support EYFS…handy. Speaking of Discover, support for interventions will become visible – to aid gauging of the effectiveness of change.

The Teacher App is still a young product, and as such – enhancements and developments are expected. They are even easier to add as well – as they aren’t tied to the main SIMS product. As users will have already noticed, there are frequent updates; a mixture of bug fixes and performance tweaks and bigger feature additions – like the Office 365 integration, offline working and the pin code functionality (all added recently). In terms of forthcoming changes – first up is the availability of the Windows and Android versions; personally, I think the Windows version is the most impressive of all the versions in terms of its presentation and taking advantage of OS differentiators. Marksheets are already there in the product (iOS only for now – Autumn for Windows and Android); but also the Assessment without Levels grids are also coming soon. Slated for Autumn is Dinner Money integration – quite nifty; as is the homework setting, which is due in Spring 2016.

Agora gets a bit of a mention…picking up support for payments via the popular “Paypoint” system available in many local shops and Post Offices. This is designed to make it even easier for parents to pay for school trips, equipment, uniforms and other items for sale via the Agora shopfront.
This year, Phil also treated us to a bit of a further future insight than normal – giving us a view into 2016 / 2017 as well. Talking about Assessment, we were reminded that the Makintosh report was due in July. This is widely expected to show that there is some commonality between Primary Schools – with most having adopted and successfully running an Assessment system “post-Levels” which is understood and enacted. On the other hand, the Secondary sector are expected to be all over the place. With the report only due for July – Phil advised that Capita were hoping to be able to respond in the Autumn, but like with the Primary solution – the key was not to rush. If anything has to be taken from the past few months in Government – slow and steady is the best way to avoid pitfalls! For example – on Statutory returns, Phil told us of the “I want more information” just the day after the election results. Things can change quickly!

Work on A2C would continue – as has been said, much investment has been made into this project by Capita – and the aim is to go live soon and bring enhanced functionality as well.

A major project for 2016 is work on a new “Achievement engine”. The scope of this is to bring together house points, assessments and achievement into one automated environment. What this will mean is the ability to use all the existing data intelligently; so that marks give awards. An example explains this theory better… If child has full week attendance, give award x etc. It could also do the converse… Add up the number of lates etc and add negatives. The key to this is that it will be dynamic, and once configured – will require no intervention. Instead – it will just surface information through the rest of the SIMS system. This sounds very clever, very interesting and very exciting. I will be following this particular project with interest!
Tied into this project, not surprisingly, is an overhaul of the Interventions capabilities of SIMS. There will be more about this in a later article – so stay tuned for that one.

Finally, since the introduction of My Account, it has made it easier for the Product Managers to track Change requests. As a result, there is a lot of interaction and fact finding going on in relation to requests – to get to the real use cases. This is making it easier to scope and develop changes – and the appropriateness of them.
At the end of the presentation, there were a few questions from the floor – which are worth a mention. The first was around Solus 2. The categorical response is that it will be able to carry out the 2016 spring upgrade, but it will be useless after that. So, the “take home” from this – invest in Solus 3. The second was about SEN, based on the changes from the DfE. Updates and changes to this are being investigated and worked on, but there is no definitive timescale at the moment.

I’m hoping to complete the next in the series of articles of the coming weeks – so stay tuned. If there is any particular highlight or information you are interested in – please use the comments on contact page. Thank you for reading.

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