There's light at the end of the tunnel for a venture that almost missed the boat, writes Gerald Haigh
The problem with being early into the market with any technology is that there may come a point where the pioneering product has to be dropped and a new start made. This is a risky enterprise - get it wrong and credibility takes a hammering. An interesting example of this has been the search for a replacement for the Schools Computer Administration and Management Programme (SCAMP) in Scotland.
Developed by the Scottish Council For Educational Technology (SCET) in the mid-Eighties, SCAMP was one of the very first school management systems. It was taken up by almost every Scottish authority except for Strathclyde (with about half of Scotland's schools), which preferred to develop its own system. Efficient though it was, SCAMP belonged to an earlier philosophical era as became clear in the Nineties. It was designed to help schools produce information for local authorities, but it was not good at allowing them to download and analyse their own data. As schools became more self-managing, there was a clear need for something different.
SCET was thought to be well on the way to this with Scetworks, a new Windows-based management information system. By November 1996, though, it was apparent that Scetworks, still not fully developed, had missed the boat. Scotland's local government had been reorganised and many new authorities were looking for something more finished - a number of them wanted to decide what to buy before April 1997.
It was a time for cutting losses, and so SCET decided to stop developing Scetworks and team up with an existing supplier that had a proven product. Given the right partner and a lot of hard work, they should be able, quite quickly, to announce this "new" system, still using the Scetworks label.
The chosen partner was Key Solutions RM Ltd (now called RM Management Solutions). SCET had already planned to use a Key Solutions finance module alongside the developing Scetworks. Key Solutions has for some years been the main competitor for SIMS, the market leader south of the border.
So it was that Scetworks 97 - effectively Key Solutions RM, modified for Scottish education - was launched in April 1997. By this time, though, authority after authority, no longer willing to wait and disillusioned by the collapse of the original Scetworks, had gone for the Phoenix package which, although developed by Ann Scott in the UK, had been in use for some time in Orkney and Shetland. Ironically, Edinburgh decided for Phoenix at more or less the same moment that Scetworks 97 was being launched in the Scottish capital.
Last spring and summer, as authorities were making their choices, was a frustrating time for SCET which clearly felt that some authorities might have chosen differently had they taken the time to look carefully at what Scetworks 97 had to offer. Nigel Paine, SCET's chief executive, said as much: "We have listened to authorities and bent over backwards to make products that suit them. I would have hoped local authorities would have shown SCET some loyalty."
Looking back, Paine recalls: "A number of authorities - Edinburgh was one - made decisions before April 1. Our product was not ready until April 6. All we asked was that they should judge us fairlyI once Edinburgh had gone with Phoenix, there was a knock-on effect to other authorities." But two authorities - Western Isles and West Lothian - have so far gone for Scetworks 97. The attitude at SCET is that there is still much to play for: Scetworks 97 includes a number of modules that can be marketed to sit alongside a competing product.
SCET's sales executive Brian Dickson says: "The fact that an authority may have a competitor's core admin system does not exclude us from providing a host of management tools, including pupil and school development planning, school financial systems and CENTRIS, which is the central school, pupil and staff database used by the authority."
This is borne out in East Dunbartonshire, a former Strathclyde authority which has enthusiastically taken up Organisational Development Planner from Scetworks. For Jan Rushworth, a curriculum support officer, this SCET module was just what the authority was looking for when it considered how best to achieve consistency of approach between the 50 schools inherited from Strathclyde: "We sat and devised the headings we hoped they would address, and wondered whether we could adopt some electronic solution. We went to SCET and they showed us this piece of software," she said.
The module is now being tried in a large number of East Dunbartonshire schools. "People like it," says Jan Rushworth. "It's user-friendly - enables you to talk education rather than talk technology."
SCET obviously has a careful eye on the dozen authorities that emerged from the demise of Strathclyde, because they will all eventually be in the market for core administration systems. All are still contractually committed to SEEMIS - the system that Strathclyde developed for its schools - for varying periods of up to three years. But then they could well be looking for suitable replacements.