As Scottish schools prepare to update their computerised management systems, Jacquetta Megarry explains what you need to know before buying and (opposite) reviews three options
Increasing delegation of financial management to schools and local government reorganisation mean that schools in Scotland are having to review their computerised management information systems.
At present, schools divide into two main camps. Those in Strathclyde region (roughly half of Scottish schools) use a system called SEEMIS, developed in-house using modern hardware and up-to-date telecommunications. Most of the others use a system called SCAMP, developed by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.
SCET's intended successor to SCAMP is known as SCETWorks. But repeated delays in its launch and problems with pilot versions have caused many SCAMP users to look to English schools software suppliers - in particular SIMS and Phoenix.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Even in a climate of greater delegation, there are practical reasons why the choice of a school management information system may be made at authority, rather than at school, level: not only are there economies of scale, but also there are demands of consistency for attendance figures and exclusion data, examination results and curriculum choices, budgetary profiles and expenditure updates.
For independent schools, there are national issues to consider. All schools that offer Scottish Examination Board and Scotvec courses can benefit by automatic data transfer (by floppy disc or modem) from a compatible system. The national Management Information Systems in Scottish Education project is playing an important co-ordinating role, and the two schools reported on (see opposite) are pilot sites for its next phase.
Start by looking at the options thoroughly: this is not a time to cut corners, as your total investment will be enormous - the purchase price is far outweighed by the annual maintenance costs, the human costs of data input and editing and the continuing costs of training. List the tasks that are currently computerised and those that ought to be, highlighting the most time-consuming.
Take the list to demonstrations by suppliers - and don't forget that what looks easy when it is done by an experienced hand might be very difficult for a teacher who is unfamiliar with software. "User-friendly" is the most overworked adjective in the suppliers' vocabulary.
If the software is not already available under an operating system of your choice (such as Windows 3 or Macintosh), ask when it will be - and treat the answer with healthy scepticism. Phoenix is unique in allowing the customer to choose - Macintosh, Windows or even a mixture.
However penetrating your questions, demonstrations have their limitations, and once your short-list is clear, request an evaluation copy of the software so as to verify how far it already meets your needs and what changes to request. Expect to sign an agreement that assures the supplier of the terms of this trial.
Focus on what your users get out of the system, not the input: generating routine letters and creating class lists takes far more office time than retrieving pupil data. How easily can the system support such tasks? Do users need to master word processor mail merge, or can the MIS software itself create letters and lists automatically? If a customised class list is needed fast, has the operator got to master a report generator or export routine?
Finally, talk to, and if possible visit, existing users before making any commitment. If a company cannot refer you to satisfied customers, it should not be selling to you at all; it should be offering to pay you to be a guinea-pig.
A site visit takes longer than a phone call, but any authority proposing to select or recommend a system to all its schools should make one. Ask about the installation and induction phase, about training needs and the response to calls for help or needs for local customisation. Smaller authorities may join forces and not only share visits but also bulk discounts.
Before embarking even on a pilot, the supplier should be asked for a firm quotation covering software purchase, annual maintenance, data transfer (from your existing software), training, hotline support, upgrades and other extras.
Even a daily training rate needs to be questioned: is training on your site or the supplier's, and will you have to pay travel and subsistence? Recognise that having made the momentous investment of choosing a system, you won't want to switch lightly. The supplier knows that too - so beware of a trap of being lured by a low purchase price into ever-spiralling maintenance costs. Ask how much notice the supplier gives of price rises, and whether there is any limit on annual increases.
Finally, ask how sure you can be of support in the future. How financially secure is the supplier? Is it over-dependent on grants or customary local authority support that might be withdrawn?