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A bit of give and take

Suppliers of software to collect data from schools have struck a deal with the Government that will improve co-operation and cost effectiveness, reports Gerald Haigh

When the Government makes pronouncements about how schools are performing, or about figures on truancy, or ethnic mix, or free dinners, how do they actually know? The answer is that they collect a whole lot of data electronically from the management information system (MIS) software installed on every school's office network. Funding decisions crucial to every individual school rely on the efficiency of the process.

Why should that interest anyone other than the school administrator or the headteacher? The answer lies in the fact that the school's MIS costs money to buy or lease, to license and keep up to date: pound;180 million a year across all schools, or pound;3,800 for each primary, according to a Value for Money report produced last year by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). Of this, pound;55 million is spent on technical support bought in from the local authority support team or direct from the supplier.

Of course, a school's MIS isn't just a pipeline to the Government. It's a valuable time-saver in its own right, and if it's used intelligently, it is also a tool for school improvement. The fact remains, though, that much of its work is at the behest of government. Not only that, but it's been a long-standing complaint of the suppliers that working to serve government requirements diverts their development work from serving the needs of schools. Often, say the suppliers, government requirements change at short notice, putting heavy demands on developers and risking either missed deadlines or malfunctions, or both.

All of that drives up the cost to schools. As the Becta report says:

"Arrangements for the collection of electronic data from schools have now grown in range, frequency and complexity to the point where they are now placing considerable administrative, technical and financial burdens on schools, on LEA support teams and on MIS solution providers."

Now, this is beginning to change. In its Value for Money report, Becta asked for a "memorandum of agreement" between government and suppliers, with government agreeing to keep changes in requirements to a minimum - and to tell suppliers about them in good time. In their turn, suppliers undertake that necessary upgrades would be passed to schools properly tested and in good time, and that they'll continue to work on better interfacing between different management systems.

This memorandum is now in existence, signed on October 12 by the Government and six software firms representing the MIS suppliers: Capita Education Services, RM School Management Solutions, Serco Education, Pearson Phoenix, Wauton Samuel and SDA (Software for Data Analysis). This, then, becomes effectively the current official suppliers' list. Capita, with its SIMS software, is by far the biggest, with 84 per cent of the schools market, but the others are all working hard to carve out a share and there's a clear feeling that the memorandum makes it easier for them to compete.

RM, for example, the second biggest, has a new product called Integris G2.

Aimed in the first instance at primary schools, this is a web-based system that is hosted remotely, either at the local authority or by RM themselves.

This takes away from the school all the work associated with software upgrades, backups and the transfer of data between school and local authority. Integris G2 is currently being used in Kirklees, Poole and Richmond-on-Thames. Another supplier - Wauton Samuel, based in Lewisham, south London, with 15 employees and a loyal customer base - is delighted at being included in the six. Managing director David Waugh sums up the effect of the memorandum on a firm like his: "This agreement will mean we can concentrate on the things which are important to schools and will help them provide the best education which is possible for their pupils." report School Management Information Systems and Value for Money can be downloaded at web)

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