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Hard fight on the software front

Gerald Haigh reports on the struggle for supremacy among administration system vendors

The battle to sell school administration software is now reaching formidable proportions and the determination of Key Solutions RM, for example, to make inroads into the huge market share held by SIMS is particularly interesting.

The marriage earlier this year between Key Solutions and Research Machines opened up new marketing opportunities, and the firm has been quick off the mark with approaches intended to woo schools and local authorities. At BETT 96, according to Key Solutions RM director Peter Williams, as well as showing the latest versions of its Windows products (all of which will run on Windows 95) on "a bigger and better stand at the front of the hall", it will also be launching "an initiative designed to encourage local education authorities to work with us at a variety of levels".

Daily throughout the show, in fact, the firm will be having special briefings for local authority staff. On offer will be the opportunity to become a "Premier Partner". Under this agreement an authority will receive the firm's software free in return for a four-year commitment to have a team taking training and support from Key Solutions. (There is no demand for exclusivity here; LEAs taking this arrangement can still run support for other products if they wish.) Peter Williams sees this as the right way forward, as schools get beyond the stage of asking which buttons to press and start to want advice on how information technology can help with management tasks. "The software is there as a vehicle, and it seems logical to charge on the basis of the servicing and training rather than on the product itself, " he says.

The other big software house tilting at SIMS is Sanderson, whose Script for Windows seems to be settling down for the long haul. When Sanderson launched Script for Windows a year or so ago, the firm acknowledged: "We see this as a marathon, not a sprint. What we have to do is earn the respect of the marketplace."

The latest recruit to this system, they tell me, is the London Borough of Redbridge. At BETT 96, Sanderson will be announcing as part of its own attempt to increase market penetration, a 60-day money-back guarantee "if Script for Windows doesn't help to improve and ease the administration of the school".

Heads and teachers south of the border may not always realise how management information systems are used in Scottish schools. They ought, therefore, to seize the opportunity, at BETT 96, to look at SCETWorks, the new administration package from the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. Though intended as a replacement for SCAMP, the system currently used in most Scottish authority schools, it is not an update but an entirely new product, taking advantage of the most recent hardware and progamming developments (see page 36).

Though its market is Scotland (there is a dialogue box, for example, that allows a school to indicate where a child is to go when an island ferry is stopped by bad weather), SCETWorks is worth the attention of all who are interested in management information systems, not least because it shows what a brand-new system, written from scratch, can look like.

SIMS, meanwhile, is continuing to move its own well-established modules into Windows - a process which is said to be almost complete - and to develop new products which make it easier for school management to use and present data. Analyst, for example, which helps users to create surveys and questionnaires, and then present the results in graphs, is being piloted in a number of institutions. SIMS also has a new Senco module intended to help special needs co-ordinators with the administrative burden recently imposed on them by new guidelines. The well-established Phoenix suite of school administration software from Scott-Reed Associates also now includes a special needs element.

Special needs procedures rang a bell at Ernest Clarke Systems, too, and they have new software intended to support the task of the co-ordinator. This firm has always tried to approach administration not so much from the point of view of the school office, but from that of the classroom teacher.

Its SPARRC system (Software for Planning, Assessing, Recording and Reporting in the Classroom) enables a teacher to record assessments and to generate reports in the classroom on whatever computer happens to be in use there. Now, as well as introducing a special needs package, the firm has split SPARRC into separate products for assessment and reporting, and made it possible to buy significant parts of the system separately.

Also aimed at helping the teacher to record classroom assessment is the latest version of Bromcom's RadioEars. This, you will recall from earlier TES coverage, started life as a computerised registration system whereby the teacher marked the register on a dedicated small computer linked by radio to the main computer in the school office.

Now, the same principle has been used to enable the teacher to enter classroom marks, carry out pre-set calculations on them and send them to the central computer by radio. Ears 96, which is what the new electronic mark book system is called, also retains its original attendance recording function. There are some upgrading deals for existing Ears users, and now Bromcom is introducing a small plug-in unit which will add Ears functions to an existing industry-standard notebook computer.

Timetabling, though perhaps the earliest area of school administration to which IT was applied, has continued to be a unique sort of art. Key Solutions, indeed, has decided not to offer specialist timetable software to replace Nova T, which went over to SIMS earlier this year, but to ensure that its existing modules will accept input from specialist timetablers.

Other firms tackling this niche market include CCM Software, with Facility Timetabler for Windows and Facility Options for Windows. There is also Neil Jepson's Timetabling Services UK, which as well as marketing the GP Untis timetabler, offers a timetabling service to schools which wish to have the whole job done for them.

* Bromcom - stand 125CCM Software - stand 624Ernest Clarke Systems- stand 550Key Solutions RM - stand 215Sanderson - stand 736SCET - stand 164SIMS - stand 140Scott-Reed Associates - stand 510Timetabling Services UK- stand C60

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