ESS SIMS contract update: what schools should know

Schools must remember they have plenty of power when it comes to wrangling with suppliers on EdTech contracts, says James Browning

James Browning

IT contracts and schools power to say no

I had the pleasure of speaking at the EdTech Summit last week at the NEC.

It was great to be back with peers, enjoying the buzz of a large show and chewing the fat after so much time apart.

What was surprising though was that the topic that dominated the conversation during so much of the event was about a company’s contract update notice sent to schools – specifically one from Education Software Solutions (ESS) about their upcoming SIMS contract renewals.

The issue was that when ESS, now part of the ParentPay family, sent out its annual renewal pack to the thousands of existing school and local authority customers it contained a notice that stated, “we are extending the length of the agreement to three years”. 

They said this was a positive thing because it gives certainty of cost and access to “committed enhancements”.

What’s more, despite being accompanied by a lengthy document and separate set of FAQs, there is no mention of alternatives and, to top it all off, the covering email signed off with a regretful note that the team at ESS are unable to receive questions by phone. 

The power to choose

Of course, for some existing SIMS customers, this option may be appealing by giving them certainty around their SIMS provider for several years and the promise of a step-change in development from the company since their recent change of ownership. 

But on the other hand, the market statistics show that thousands of customers have opted to move away from SIMS in the past few years, with their market share dropping from a high of 84 per cent in 2012 to below 70 per cent at the last census point earlier this year. 

Clearly, schools are getting better at taking advantage of a wider array of suppliers and moving as and when they see fit – something that is much easier to do when you are on shorter-term contracts.

As such, for many I spoke to at the show last week, the idea of a three-year contract immediately caused consternation because it meant they would lose the flexibility of the one-year deals they were used to and remove this ability to change suppliers on their terms.

It wasn’t just IT head honchos and school leaders that saw this issue. The Department for Education issued a note “encourage[ing] all schools to pause before agreeing to this new contract whilst we investigate”.

This was a notable step and is advice multi-academy trusts and schools of all sizes should heed: any change in contract length like this should prompt all schools to gain three quotes and consider alternatives in order to be compliant with DfE procurement advice whenever any "material change" is made to a contract.

This is the key takeaway from this situation: schools have a choice and do not need to accept any new deal put to them and need to be ready to look elsewhere if required.

As such, here is what to look out for if you’re in the hot seat, having responsibility for MIS procurement – or indeed any other EdTech hardware or software – in your school: 

1. Ask for another deal

If a shorter-term contract suits you best, don’t hesitate to ask for it. You’ll have to navigate the ESS portal and request some contact given the lack of phone lines, but there have been reports of some already securing one-year renewals.

2. Get three quotes

If you are thinking of moving then this can be done quickly via frameworks such as G-Cloud 12 – all major MIS providers are on them and the frameworks are designed to help you find value for money.

3. Don’t let the renewal notice slip you by

Many IT contracts work on the basis that if you do nothing, your agreement will be automatically generated for three years.

So check your renewal date and your notice period, as changes or cancellations need to be agreed on 90 days prior to that renewal date. Most renewals are in April, meaning the end of December will be your cut off.

4. Don’t be afraid of change

It’s true that changing MIS – or indeed any key software platform used in school – can be a big piece of work and should not be taken lightly. But remember thousands of others have been before you and made a change so it can be done.

This also means that there is lots of experience in our network that can help you through, and the providers themselves are getting quite slick at supporting the transition.

You’ll find most suppliers will be quite comfortable at the prospect of moving you in short timescales too, tailoring a plan around your existing contract end date.

James Browning is chief digital and information officer for Academies Enterprise Trust

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