The growing administrative demands on today's schools mean computerised systems are essential. Gerald Haigh reports on competition hotting up in a field led by a group of ex-teachers
I once worked in a secondary school with a super-efficient deputy head. He had several files with titles such as Finance, Exam Entries, Timetable and so on. One was labelled Non-Swimming which gave rise to the legend that Mr Efficiency, having wrapped up everything that existed, had started upon the negative, other-dimensional aspects of school life.
By the early Eighties it was obvious to some far-sighted teachers and to specialists in the software industry that many of the tasks involved in the running of schools were ideally suited to being handled by computer. You could put every pupil's name, and any amount of school and home information, on a database. Just doing this would make it much easier to produce the many different kinds of pupil lists that a school uses all the time.
Then there was finance of course, given sharper focus by the trend for budgeting and spending to be delegated from local authorities to schools. Other areas, too - attendance records, examination entries - all seemed ripe for a technology which was advancing by leaps and bounds.
A number of firms started up in those early years, aiming at the administrative side of school life. In the end, though, one organisation, SIMS (Schools Information Management Systems), originally developed by a group of teachers in Bedfordshire, became enormously successful. Within a very few years, it had a near-monopoly of such systems in schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The firm consolidated its position in a number of ways. It made sure that local authority support teams knew how to act as troubleshooters and to update the product. It kept up a supply of new modules as schools became more aware of what IT could do. It listened carefully to users, running a range of focus groups and regular meetings.
Inevitably, new players came along. They believed that nobody had a God-given right to own the market. One thing going for them was that SIMS was to some extent held back by its early success - upgrading and improvement always had to be done with one eye on the need to support earlier versions of the product. Later arrivals on the market could start further along the line of technological development.
Nevertheless, the problems were enormous. By the early Nineties, very few schools had no management information system, so for a competitor to succeed, it had to unseat the existing supplier either at school or local authority level, or both. The problem here was best explained by the local authority support team member who said to me, "Even if you show me a product which is better, I will say that the one I have does the job, and I just do not have the time or resources to learn another."
Overcoming this inertia takes not only effort but investment. And there are other difficulties, too. The market for what is usually a very sophisticated and expensively developed suite of software is not all that large - the number of schools is finite, and the number of authorities relatively small. Neither is it easy to sell to schools - the need to make demonstrations to heads, governors and local authorities, perhaps on separate occasions, can eat up profits.
Accordingly the schools market is still heavily dominated by one supplier, although a few have done well in areas where SIMS has not. In Scotland, SIMS is little known and there has recently been some keen competition, following local government re-organisation. Competition comes and goes, too, from software products aimed at particular specialist areas such as timetabling.
If you believe in the virtues of competition, such complete domination of the market by one supplier is not necessarily to the customer's benefit. Far too many heads and governors in England and Wales have only ever seen one management system product It really is important for local authorities to keep up to date and open-minded about the products that are available. Heads and teachers have a part to play too. Not only should they be prepared to make their own decisions about different systems, but they should be feeding information, ideas and opinions to their local authorities.
There is no doubt that the emphasis in school administration and management is moving on from the basics of pupil and finance data-handling to the management of the curriculum, which involves the analysis of performance, assessment and examination data, and to the use of this information in activities such as target setting and benchmarking.
Quite suddenly, it seems, schools, local authorities and government agencies have become repositories of lots of objective measurements of school and pupil performance. If this mass of information is to be useful it has to be made transparent, so that trends can be discerned and plans made for improvement. This will be one of the most important tasks of management information systems in the coming years.
Heads and governors accordingly need to watch how new products are reflecting and even guiding this trend. Some suppliers clearly feel that although the basic functions centred around the pupil database and school finance are still needed - and capable of further refinement - the future lies with more ambitious data analysis and management tasks.
Readers may notice what seem to be incompatibilities in statements about market share from the various companies (below and right). SIMS claims to have "two-thirds of the old Nord Script authorities"; Key Solutions says it has "over half" of them. The same firm says it has contracts with 51 authorities; SIMS says that "of 145 authorities, 126 are SIMS users".
So is someone being economical with the truth? No. To say a local authority is a licensed user of a system, or has a contract, is not the same thing as saying every school in that authority uses it exclusively. Some authorities support more than one system, perhaps seeing strengths in one or the other for particular tasks or sectors. In many authorities ostensibly committed to one system you will find individual schools, or groups of schools using something else. Even within individual schools, there may be parts of more than one system.
The market leader "continues to expand", according to director Hugh Carr-Archer. "Of 145 local authorities, 126 are SIMS users." A lot of SIMS expansion has come from the recruitment into its organisation of erstwhile local authority support teams. The SIMS deal is to take the support team off the authority's hands and set up a client relationship with the authority.
One of the big problems in recent years has been the tardy appearance of the Windows versions of its modules. The firm's early domination has left it with DOS products still operating in thousands of schools, on hardware that will not run Windows. SIMS cannot abandon these users and has to develop new products, and support existing ones, in both DOS and Windows.
"We do want to be nudging them to upgrade, but the truth is that we will still be supporting DOS-users up to the end of the century. It doubles our development and support costs."
It now has 19 of its 30 or so modules available in Windows. Most significantly, the Windows version of its well known Finance module - a key tool in thousands of schools - has just been launched.
Meanwhile, SIMS is focused on what Key Solutions RM calls "learning management". Hugh Carr-Archer feels that "This is the sort of area which is critical if we are to see IT move to being a management tool." Its contract to work with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on diagnostic analysis of key stage 2 test results, which will provide valuable experience of the kind of detailed analysis of objective data, is therefore very important. Its new free-standing package, Quest, gathers objective data from authorities and schools across the country and offers users various ways of viewing and analysing it.
SIMScontains 30 modules. DOS platform; some modules available in Windows. SIMS, Priory Business Park, Cardington, Bedford MK44 3SG.Tel: 01234 838080
KEY SOLUTIONS RM
The only company that can claim to be a serious competitor to SIMS. Makes no bones about its mission to win market share from its rival for its entirely Windows-based product, Integris 2000. It has given away software to authorities and set up and supported pilot projects in groups of schools within interested authorities. Its approach is that of the determined motor vehicle dealer who says, "If you want this one, let's find a way to do the deal."
It is a strategy which has enabled the firm to claim significant progress especially in the two years since its acquisition by Research Machines provided the necessary financial support. Director Peter Williams told me that Key Solutions RM now has contracts with one-third of all local authorities, a three-fold increase over two years.
Battling with the market leader for the core administration business, though, is not this supplier's only vision of the future. Real progress, it feels, will come when schools and authorities realise the potential of "Learning Management" - assessment, records of achievement, curriculum analysis and planning, staff development. It was obvious from the enthusiasm of people at the firm's Otley headquarters that here is a field in which they hope and expect to be big players. Their vision goes a long way into the future and their Assessment Manager, which is an important step down the road, will be released in September.
The company is gaining market share - by persuading local authorities andor schools to use its system instead of, or perhaps in addition to, SIMS. It is not easy to judge just how much progress it has made, but with 6,000 individual modules in use in schools, its claim that it is becoming a serious player rather than a marginal one is probably true.
Integris 2000, a Windows-based package, has more than 20 modules. Key Solutions RM,Wharfe House, Ilkley Road, Otley, West Yorkshire LS4 3JP.Tel: 01943 463346
Its Phoenix range of software is very successful in Scotland. It has a limited though loyal group of customers south of the border. Rarely advertised so sells on the strength of its qualities.
For some of its life Scott Reed was part of a group which is now Key Solutions RM.
Its original Scottish presence was in Orkney and Shetland, but the arrival of new authorities wanting new ideas has seen a big expansion for Phoenix and about 12 Scottish authorities, covering a huge geographical area, are now committed to it. Significantly those heavily populated authorities which were once Strathclyde have still to make up their minds, and others besides Scott Reed have designs on them.
Marketed more aggressively, Phoenix would probably have done better in the UK. Converts are always very impressed by its ease of use and clarity - very little training is needed. Its remarkable success in Scotland, on what seems to have been a level playing field, is significant.
Phoenix contains 12 modules and runs on Windows and Apple. Scott Reed, Atticus House, Turk Street, Alton, Hampshire GU34 1EF.Tel: 01420 83085
The publicity says "You may recognise the name I but you certainly won't recognise how it looks and performs." Script, produced by Nord, was used in 15 northern authorities, but the firm went bust. Sanderson bought Nord and its new product Script for Windows has been piloted over the last two years.
Sanderson emphasises it is "based on open systems technology" - you can use it in conjunction with other software, and can easily export and import data to and from other systems. So you can use it with other word-processing or spreadsheet software. The obvious aim is to produce good, easily accessible information, in a variety of formats so that managers have what they need to do their jobs. This is a policy which has been refined over years of experience with other public-sector users.
It has a separate attendance management product, AWOL, which will work with a range of attendance and registration packages, including SIMS.
The company stresses its determination to stay the course. "We said at the start it was a marathon," said managing director David O'Byrne, "and we're still running it." He pointed to the strength of Sanderson PSS as one of the largest software companies in Europe, with great experience of the public sector. "Our mainstream business is software.'' The London Borough of Barnet has just signed a deal for Script for Windows for 100 primary and secondary schools. But movement is very slow. Most of the original Nord Script users are now with other suppliers (SIMS claims two-thirds of them). Any belief that it will continue to grow is based on it being a sound product from a big and experienced software house.
Script for Windows contains eight modules. Sanderson PSS, South Point, South Accommodation Road, Leeds LS10 1PP.Tel: 0113 254 2000
The recent involvement of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology in this field is not a happy one. For some years it produced SCAMP which was used in many Scottish authorities - and, I believe, was considered by some English ones in the early days. Although it undoubtedly did the job, the time came for SCET to replace it with a Windows package, known as SCETWorks. Development of this was abandoned at the end of last year. SCET took on Key Solutions RM software, with modifications to suit the Scottish market.
SCETWorks has five modules and runs on Windows and Apple. SCET, 74 Victoria Crescent Road, Glasgow G12 9JN.Tel: 0141 337 5000