Gerald Haigh visits one of the 600 schools in Ireland using one type of management information software, and asks why it is so attractive.
The leading supplier of management information software to schools in the Republic of Ireland is making a strong pitch to establish itself in the UK education market.
CCM Software Services, based in Dublin, had a stand at the BETT technology show this year, and has set up a sales and support office in Nottingham. CCM was founded in 1987 by David Collery. Then a teacher, he was asked with some colleagues to look for a system for the Dublin Vocational Education Committee's 23 schools. Nothing they found did exactly what the schools wanted, so he wrote himself a system which, as Facility Administration, is now in 600 of Ireland's 800 secondary schools.
Facility Administration comprises student and teacher records, results, attendance, profiles and reports and is used by schools to make their annual statistical returns on disc to the Dublin government. The company, however, has deliberately chosen not to tackle this central administrative part of the market in the UK as yet, but to spearhead its advance here with two other management products - Facility Timetabler for Windows and Facility Options for Windows.
David Collery makes strong claims for both: "The company is providing the most advanced timetabling system available in Europe, with sophisticated handles to and from various administration systems." He is particularly keen to emphasise that "They are full-features Windows implementations." Both Facility packages, he points out, "have properly moveable windows within them. It is possible to manipulate the data as objects on the screen."
This, he claims, contrasts with software which simply uses Windows as a tacked-on "front end" or "surround". To see Facility at work, I visited St Tiernan's Community School, in Dundrum on the edge of Dublin, where vice-principal Tim Geraghty has been a keen user from the early days.
One of Mr Geraghty's demands was that the administration system should not be tucked away in the office, but be available on network terminals - so that teachers could enter examination data near where they were working.
By 1988 the network system was running, and the school now has 10 terminals into which teachers key their own results. That the teachers have taken easily to this says much for the system's ease of use. For his part, David Collery feels strongly that for test results, keyboard entry by teachers into the network, rather than the optical mark reader (OMR), is the way forward.
"We're very strong on leaving the school with freedom to design reporting criteria. They need systems which provide them with the flexibility to cope with curricular changes. What you need to input might change from day to day, and with OMR you are locked into a design."
Keyboard entry, with the right software, is, he believes, quite quick and easy enough for teachers to learn. "It also allows the teacher control over the inputs and diverts this task away from the school office. If you have to send teachers on a course to show them how to put in results, there is something wrong with the system."
Facility Options is also in use at St Tiernan's. It enables the school to start the option procedure by offering pupils a completely free choice. The software then generates "option pools" - hundreds of them if necessary. The teachers can look at any of these, beginning with the ones which offer the maximum "fit" between what the pupils want and what is possible. At this point, explained Tim Geraghty, with the basic hard work done, "we can make decisions based on individual needs. And if we need to negotiate a change with a student, we can do it with confidence about which alternatives will work."
This sort of task, pointed out David Collery, "is what the computer was designed to do, ie take lots of inputs and offer lots of different possible solutions". David Collery is very serious about his approach to the UK market - training for customers and potential customers, in the two Facility products, by experienced timetablers, is already being established in the first of several centres.
His determination is undoubtedly encouraged by a belief that some of the management software currently being used here is inadequate to the task.
"Schools should not be taking back bedroom software. If you are not prepared to put the product through a proper manufacturing development cycle then you really shouldn't be selling it." Software which is well developed and tested should not, he suggests, need an extensive support network. "It's time software grew up. It shouldn't have to be sold along with a man in a white coat. The best support you can provide is to give the customer a piece of software that works."
In pursuit of this ideal, David Collery and his colleagues have evolved a manufacturing process which consists of a set of well-defined stages, from consultation, through design and testing, and then back into development again before it reaches the production stage. Two teams of professional testers are involved, remote both from each other and from the firm's headquarters (because the conclusions of testers should not be influenced by the views of developers). "The aim is to produce a product which is highly stable and can be used without a massive amount of support."
Allied to this approach is David Collery's doubt about big integrated administration systems. "People offering totally integrated systems may not be doing schools a service, because certain functions are, by their very nature, somewhat disparate. We don't see ourselves in library management, for example, or in accounts." Those systems which do try to do everything may, he feels, fall down in some areas. It is, he suggests, "practically unbelievable that any single system could provide highly functional software for every area in school administration. You only have to look at those which purport to be all things to all people, and quite demonstrably they are not! For example, we've had huge interest in Facility Timetabler and Facility Options in the UK, precisely because of serious gaps in this area."
The corollary of this, however, is his passionate insistence on the ease of transfer of data from one system to another. In his experience, not all suppliers of management software provide this.
Part of the problem may be that schools, as customers, are not as alive to the desirability of easy data transfer as is the world outside. "Corporate users of software will necessarily have several different packages for specialist areas and the easy transfer of data between these systems is regarded as normal. School users should demand that companies co-operate to the maximum degree possible in the transfer of data. Our software can import and export data to and from any administration system, and we provide proper handles for doing that."
There is no doubt that CCM comes into the UK market with a serious track record, and David Collery himself is strongly signalling his intention to make competitors sit up and take notice. Here is yet another example of the way that the schools administration software market is changing under the pressure of competition. The onus is on schools to keep up with what is going on and to hold new systems up to the light alongside existing ones.
* Facility Systems Ltd, Lenton Business Centre, Lenton Boulevard, Nottingham NG7 2BY.