Management information systems for schools form a niche market, and the Scottish niche is smaller than most; there are only 400 or so state secondary schools plus 20-odd independents. So, it is perhaps fortunate that decisions are still being made at authority level, rather than by individual schools. And there has been an unprecedented flurry of decision-making this past year.
The Scottish market is divided into two sections: the 12 authorities that used to form Strathclyde who still use SEEMIS, a software system developed by Strathclyde; and the other 20 authorities that are at various stages of phasing out SCAMP, a system developed with the Scottish Council for Educational Technology.
SCET, though, has repeatedly failed to deliver SCETWorks, the intended successor to SCAMP, in any credible form. It was finally launched last November, but the product was still far from complete. SCET, therefore, decided to abandon SCETWorks and quietly replaced it with software modules from RM Key Solutions Ltd.
This new software will need adaptation for Scotland's curriculum, examination structure and terminology. Meanwhile, this "new" SCETWorks for Scottish schools is promised for next month.
However, this will be too late for at least three-quarters of the former SCAMP authorities, which have already gone elsewhere.
The surprise for English readers will be that none of the Scottish authorities has chosen SIMS, which dominates the scene south of the border. So far, all have gone for Phoenix, a system from Scott Reed Associates of Alton, Hampshire. Because of its origins in Orkney and Shetland, where Phoenix has been used for six years, this system had a head start locally. Scott Reed has been quick to develop this further during its 12-month collaboration with the first two mainland authorities to order Phoenix. Early in 1996 Gordon Jeyes, director of education for Stirling Council, commissioned a review of the options available; five suppliers subsequently submitted tenders. Phoenix emerged as the clear favourite, and, by October, it was in daily use in all secondary and primary schools in Stirling and Clackmannanshire Councils.
SIMS has given a number of demonstrations, has set up a Scottish office and its software is being piloted in West Lothian, Glasgow and East Renfrewshire. But no Scottish authority seems to want to risk being the only Scottish customer of SIMS, particularly when the company's base in English local education authorities is so strong.
Phoenix now has a large base of established and satisfied Scottish users, to whom uncommitted authorities can send visitors (teachers say that there is no substitute for seeing their peers using software "for real").
Virtually all schools in Scotland present candidates to two centres: the Scottish Examinations Board (SEB) and the Scottish Vocational Education Council. This means that dealing with examination presentations in electronic form is extremely simple. This will be further simplified after April 1 when the two bodies merge to form the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
SEB is happy to co-operate with any supplier that meets its technical criteria. It has already processed preliminary discs from Phoenix and is "satisfied with progress so far". It has not yet received anything in electronic form from SIMS, Key Solutions or SCETWorks. But it is up to the marketplace to decide whichsoftware it prefers.
* The author worked as a consultant for Stirling Council, looking at the range of options for schools management systems