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Spoilt for choice?

Gerald Haigh charts a path through the bewildering array of MIS software and services

Your school's management information system (MIS) is going to be working harder than ever in the coming years. You'll be expecting it to support you in the handling and presentation of pupil performance data to drive school improvement. Ofsted will expect you to use data for self-evaluation. Parents and pupils - and staff at home - will use the system on the internet, and teachers will consult and add to pupil data as part of their work.

There's another dimension, too. At the curriculum end of the ICT spectrum, we're seeing the arrival of virtual learning environments (VLE). These involve assessment and the use of pupils' personal data. Rapidly, the gap between them and the MIS will be filled to where both become part of a bigger integrated system. (The Department for Education and Skills regards the integration of curriculum and administrative systems as "a key element in facilitating whole-school improvement", and some suppliers have already acquired, or are acquiring, VLEs.) In this time of change, the consensus among advisers and users is that if you're a school that wants to become data driven, this means revisiting your MIS and the way it's used. A starting point is to investigate future developments with your supplier. Each company has plans and visions, so it would be wrong to compare one supplier's forthcoming product with another's working edition. But look at other systems. You need to achieve best value and ensure you're using the most efficient tool for improving performance.

There are basically two classes of software. The "big systems" provide support in all aspects of administration and management; the smaller, specialised products aim at a particular niche.

A big system is a suite of software that starts with a pupil database and then builds many functions on to it, in modules such as assessment, attendance, examination entries, timetabling or behaviour. Such products are usually described as "integrated" as they link together much more closely and easily than would be possible were they separate software products. There are four - Integris from RM Management Solutions, Facility from Serco Learning, Phoenix from Pearson, and SIMS from Capita, but a fifth, e-SchoolMIS from Bromcom, is expected later this year. And Chafford Hundred school, Essex, is hailing a bespoke newcomer, Connetix learning, focused on learners.

The smaller software packages include products for timetabling, for managing the particular requirements of Sencos, for contacting parents whose children are absent, for recording attendance and behaviour, and several intended to address the particular pupil-tracking needs of primary schools. Most are listed by Becta (see listings right).

You need to bear two things in mind: that any extra piece of software must link easily with the main MIS, freely exchanging pupil data; and that the same function could be in development as an adjunct to the system you already have.

Discuss any product with your main MIS supplier.

* Take your time. Work with suppliers, go back with questions and suggestions. Answers will emerge, and you'll get a feel for what - and who - you can work with.

* Keep returning to the question: "How does this support teaching and learning, not just in general but in our school?"

* Every member of the school community is potentially a user. List the categories, and individually examine how, why and when they might go to the MIS now and in the future. Which bits of it should each group be able to see? Should they be able to have "read only" access or do they need to open live files to change or update information? How well can the MIS respond?

* Probe the teacher's role. Ask: "What information about your pupils would enable you to plan your work better, so teach more effectively?"

* Think radically about pupils working at home, about flexible school days, links to the community and the Government's "Every Child Matters" agenda - links with health and children's services. Is your supplier thinking the same way?

* Think about the growth of VLEs and "e-learning" . What are the implications for your MIS needs?

* Look at external demands: data for your LEA, the DfES, Ofsted. How easily are these achieved?

* Don't overlook hardware. It's not whether software will run on your system, it's whether it will run properly, at full speed.

* Visit schools using different systems. Becta recommends getting 10 names from each supplier, then making your own selections. Go with a representative group of end-users, working to an agreed agenda.

* Costs of ownership go beyond direct software and hardware costs - even direct training. They extend to running your school in such a way that everyone can make full use of the system's capabilities. Suppliers will tell you of the many schools where MIS has never been allowed to show its true value.

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