Inside SIMS and its development – an interview with the Team

So, back at the end of January, I got the opportunity to sit down with a number of the key people behind SIMS, namely Jon Wood, Graham Cooper, Ben Jones and Phil Neal.

blogs/thescarfedone/attachments/18010-inside-sims-its-development-interview-team-cap1015-phil-neal.jpg blogs/thescarfedone/attachments/18011-inside-sims-its-development-interview-team-cap1015-graham-cooper.jpg
Above – Phil Neal (MD); Graham Cooper (Head of Product Strategy)

This follows my article on SLG; and the hints at what was to become the Spring 2013 SIMS.net release.

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Capita LA Conference 2012 – Alton Towers – Learning Gateway Product Update

Post 3 in this mini-series giving you the information from the Capita LA Event… and up this time; a bit of history of the SIMS Learning Gateway product with where it’s headed. Incidentally at this point – this is probably the worst product name! It is NOT – never has been, never will be, was never supposed to be – a Learning Gateway. Nor was it ever going to be a replacement for SIMS.net! I did have some great discussions with Phil Neal and new product manager Ben Jones about this.

Now we have got that out of the way – what was this session all about? In short – the latest developments to the SIMS Learning Gateway [SLG] (grrr – there’s that name again!). Ben Jones (and a nice big welcome to the new product manager) told us how his intention is to revitalise the product into playing a key role in a school’s parental engagement policy whilst providing return on investment for schools.

Ben Jones, took over in Feb 2012… and was frank (as most of us as an audience were with him) about the need for updates in a dramatically changing market place. The original product has been around since 2006; and Home School communications have changed a lot since then. There are many more products on the market – many with significantly more polished interfaces.

However, despite that backdrop – over 41 LAs host SLG. This is roughly 1 in 2 Secondaries and 1 in 8 Primaries. 450 are self hosted, 650 hosted on Capita Platform. Those are massive statistics, and its still rising…

This is a changing market – and not surprisingly after the demise of BECTA, there was a drop off in school take up. Since then, there has also been a push back against the drive.

Making good progress with the Assessment for Learning, driven by changes in the primary sector. Drive for quicker feedback and monitoring of truancy.

So what has been the success driving SLG adoption? This all centres around maximising the potential of SIMS. From the first post in this mini-series, I talked about Schools being data rich, and not quite knowing what to do with it… well SLG can help. It provides simple tools for viewing data, and can be a way of getting it in. The less IT literate amongst us are often happier with browser access – this is direct feedback from Schools. The future development of SLG is targetted to allow access from all tablets inc iPads.

The other driver is still parental engagement – which still forms part of Ofsted requirements. Despite some of the perceptions, it can offer cost and efficiency savings through reporting to parents online rather than on paper. In turn, this can drive up School standards and the School Community thought better feedback to parents and increasing reporting timescales. As a direct correlation to this, one of the latest updates to SLG surrounds parents. Data collection sheets are a classic case of inefficiency. These are traditionally printed and sent home with Students or completed on parents events. The online version will allow changes to be reported at the time, directly. An important note – the School stays in control of data at all times, choosing what changes get made; and like with the rest of the SLG framework – what information is shown.

What schools who are using the product actually say then? This may surprise you – direct honest feedback on the failings!

Communications and messaging
Lack of understanding of capability. Redesigned marketing materials, with real life implementations
Template how to guides and starter sheets available, based on real schools
How to videos and guides
Production of news letters, to keep users informed

The most important part of this discussion – and it was more of a discussion than a presentation – was outlining what was coming up.

Summer

  • Parental two way communication… Data collection sheets. Parents view what you want them to see, and allow them to modify it for approval by school.
  • Online reports will open in new window
  • Profiles, screen jumping to top of the page on refresh fixed
  • Report card, hide historical reports
  • Data collection sheet (more detail below)

Data collection sheet detailed discussion…
This feature was driven by the desire to reduce the need for paper copies (which get lost) and school chasing parents.

The system works through reusing drop down lists populated by options in SIMS – helping ensure data consistency. That being said, in certain areas, you will also be able to add free text where option not available.

To ensure legal compliance, you can hide contacts where “Do not disclose is set”

Marking a shift in the development in SLG – you might be surprised to seen that the screen is in a wizard format – actually making it visually pleasing for the user. According to Ben, this is part of a drive for the “new SLG” to be much more user friendly. The wizard displays as a series of screens:

  • Basic details
  • Contacts
  • Medical
  • Dietary
  • Travel
  • Ethnicity

Currently missing is parental responsibility, eg when to teach PHSE. This is coming in autumn, when ability to choose which wizard screens are available.

As to be expected with a wizard – a “finish” option shows you the entries you have made with confirmation. This removes the ability to make other changes after, until they are approved. The School can view the information in Routines, SLG, Data Collection. This is not auto copying yet. Instead, until added in Autumn, there is a copy option with a link to where the data needs to go. You then mark them as actioned and closed.

Autumn

  • Auto writeback, with validation
  • SLG teacher attendance iPad compatibility, popup with bigger buttons
  • Homework enhancements to include homework data fields in reporting
  • Mark sheet autosave

Coming soon

  • Mobile view versions
  • Drive adoption of student use through above
  • Options web part for choosing from above

And the future of SLG? The roadmap on SupportNet shows all – and is being regularly updated by Ben. The product can only grow with the support and feedback from the community.

  • Ui refresh of web parts for student details… Spring
  • Mobile views
  • Password reset process
  • Discover integration… Could lead to governor website, slt, parents view of their child as part of cohort
  • Homework enhancements
  • Pick which documents to publish

This post continues from my last – discussing the themes and news from the Capita LA Conference. I know this will come as a surprise to some, who will have been expecting more “geeky” System Centre or HyperV stuff – but my community work will also form my blogs too!

The Key Note speech at the event was made by Tony Travers. Tony Travers is Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a research centre at the London School of Economics. He is also a Visiting Professor in the LSE’s Government Department; whos research interests include local and regional government and public service reform. He is currently an advisor to the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. He has published a number of books on cities and government, including Failure in British Government, The Politics of the Poll Tax (with David Butler and Andrew Adonis), Paying for Health, Education and Housing: How does the Centre Pull the Purse Strings (with Howard Glennerster and John Hills) and The Politics of London: Governing the Ungovernable City.

Here though – he talked to us about the way in which management and support of Schools has changed.

Looking back, Schools started and were maintained locally by bodies often formed by churches. After 1945 onwards, e state stepped in, with LEAs. Were schools then a local service or a national service, really a mix of the two.

From 1976 onwards, there was greater Government involvement – increasing to the general “tinkering” which every successive power has felt the need to do.

The national curriculum was introduced, followed by endless fiddling with curriculums and exams – which continues to this day. You only have to look at the news lately to see a new ICT Curriculum (now this one I do agree with); changes to the GCSE system, changes to numeracy and literacy expectations from Primary and more.

All of this “tinkering” has had a purpose though. The new models have been designed to drive improvement, but how much of is a remodelling of the past, academies and free schools are similar to and an evolution of the old grant maintained schools. We now have a mixture of types of school, giving choice to parents. League tables and inspections allow that to be an informed choice, and to enforce performance. The pupil premium drives improvement by competition between schools. More students equals greater funding. Has this led to a reduced role for local government?

What is the role?

Admissions, centrally provided services and ensuring capital investment by ensuring places are available.

Little power to close failing academies, or plan the system of local schools. Loss of fiscal power too.

However, the growth area has been that Councils can also provide ancillary services… Free School Meals, insurance, supply, under achieving pupils, insurance, information services, economies of scale services are just some examples of this.

The long and short of it is that LAs have moved from being providers and controllers, to more limited role. Instead, new and strengthened central bodies from Whitehall – Ofsted, Education Funding Agency, DfE.

So, what does the future hold, and what issues could it present?

The economy is the obvious first point. The constant drive to cut costs brings the challenge of weak growth and likelyhood of school funding being held at below inflation levels. There is bound to be the continuation of new policies – the move to introduce more Academies and the growth of Free Schools. Only in the news in the past few weeks were the announcements to push failing Primaries into Academy Status. To gain a perceived better control of costs, there is also likely to be a further centralisation of funding.

Where does all of this leave LAs? It all looks bleak for them, indeed many thought the LA IT role would all but disappear. Instead, a new LA role has grown – to be the invisible guiding role. There to be supporting, able to give guidance; and taking an active interest locally – which central powers cannot do.

They are also in a position to be delivering value for money though economies of scale projects and services – on a local level, coordinating the needs of their cluster. Despite the fears to the contrary, they are plenty of examples where LAs continue handling finance for central capital projects as well.

Why does the role of the LA matter anyway – and what could explain this “phoenix from the flames”?

  • Greater trust of local councillors rather than MPs
  • Balanced local ear to the ground abilities
  • Emergency support via local secured and invested funds
  • Responsibility for other key services such as social care, public health, planning, crime and disorder

And why is this important? Well these relate to education because of the wider impact of the environment out children grow up in. They change the way people feel – change their perception and confidence in a way that Central Government cannot achieve.

So, in conclusion – although there has been a move away from Local Government responsibility over the last 50 years, there is still a major role for it.

Still a need for the efficiency and scale that Local Government has, despite the press coverage. It is a surprising statistic some may say, but Local Government is more efficient than Central and any small organisation (such as a school on its own).

Capita LA Conference 2012 – Alton Towers – The Year in Review

A departure from some of my more recent posts about System Centre – now time to concentrate on more of the Consultancy and Technology Evangelism Im also involved with.

This time, I was very fortunate to be invited to the Capita SIMS LA Conference, held at Alton Towers. Thanks must go to Cath Lane and her team, as well as Phil Neal and the Product Managers who spared their time to talk to me. This is the first of a selection of posts which will appear this week discussing the themes of the event.

So, on to the actual event, which centred around the way in which the Schools ecosystem is changing. Even Capita (who I know some of my audience will suggest otherwise) appreciate the need to better understand the market – and what we need. IT as a technology, as a platform for use in Schools is changing. Schools are very data rich – but often are not in a position to understand, filter or use this data properly. This is where SIMS, and other Capita products and services come in.

Phil Neal spoke on stage about the demanding competitive landscape which exists, both in terms of product and also the ancilliary services such as LA support services. Again – I know some of my audience wont believe that the MIS market place could be seen as competitive, but the simple truth is it is. The Academy system has changed the ecosystem – Schools and Colleges have a choice.

There are more developers and products on the market, and there is a greater awareness of them. I think a lot of this has to do with the changing professionals in Schools, and groups such as Edugeek.

There are more decision makers – no longer is it an LA decision which MIS, or other systems a School uses. Schools in isolation are making this decision, although – that being said – there are also Federations of Schools choosing a product or service. Software and support providers are having to change the way they market themselves and their products – to make themselves understood to a different audience.

The move to the cloud also is having an impact. Product launches such as the competitive Serco Progresso raise the conversation “is there going to be a Cloud SIMS”.

Despite the bleak outlook when the Academy system started, Capita have been making gains in 2011/12 of roughly 50 schools. They also won Norfolk LA, and that is despite the concern of LAs “loosing control” of their Schools.

The change to Academies has brought on its challenges. Academies have to go to market to asses what is available to choose what is needed for them. Converted academies are doing well, sponsored academies less so – as they tend to be groups or adopt whatever the sponsor is using.

LA tenders are progressing, and there have been gains such as the Norfolk LA gain earlier. The new DfE framework brings its own challenges, the problem is that the tender can be all about the terms and conditions rather than the functionality and software. This is where the definition of core and non core models is important. The staggering truth there is that according to the framework, Exams and Upgrades are not part of the core, while cashless management is. Go figure?! So, in short, if you are a School or LA tendering – make sure you check carefully what components you want/expect to be included in your costs, or you risk getting stung! After the demise of BECTA, some may see it as no surprise that there is also no mention of parental engagement. If you are a School or LA who has rolled this out already, or has plans to do so (bear in mind that this is still part of Ofsted monitoring and evaluation) – you need to check carefully that you include this too.

Capita have understood one clear thing from the community – and that is the quality of their communications with people on the ground. Their surveys of the user group showed some interesting results. Quality of training materials and Uptake of SIMS in the Classroom – key drivers were varied. There is going to be a lot of work taking place to improve this soon. There has been limited takeup Discover and Solus 3 – but those where it has been implemented, it has taken off. Discover is changing the market place. Whole industry around developing aspects for Discover.

Also questioned was whether support to schools was direct or via LA.

So – what is changing soon?

Learning Gateway is due to have extensive developments, and now has a new Product Manager. The first big change is to add data collection sheets. The second will be a complete re-write of the “person webpart” – which is responsible for the old style Student and Staff details pages.

T4 is dead as a product. T6 now has all the functionality, and the Timetable printing functionality is all embedded in the main SIMS.net product. Finally, you can say goodbye to this relic of SIMS.

FMS has document management and cost centre manager permissions. Auditing reports and specific reports for Academies is also now included. This was one of the big criticisms of the product. Finally – and Phil was very proud to announce this – FMS is now Financial Authority Accredited.

In Touch is being revitalised as a product. There seems to be limited awareness of this nationwide. I guess, in part, this is due to the plethora of competitive products such as Groupcall, Teachers2Parents etc. However, ask youself this, why use these if the functionality can be “there” in SIMS. Anyway – coming soon to it are improved alerting and automated notifications.

And finally from Phil’s stage section was another bit of pride for more awards – Finalist for BETT 2012 and Winner of ERA for innovation. Not bad for a years work!