The three most popular options

6th December 1996 at 00:00

Hamilton College, a 770-pupil independent school based in the premises of the former college of education, was the first school in Scotland to install SIMS. Its principal, Tony Leach, became an enthusiast in his former post as head of a Suffolk secondary. It was professionally supported by a company of some 240 employees, and he found it comprehensive, well integrated and user-friendly.

SIMS is also being piloted in three schools in Glasgow and four in East Renfrewshire. The company opened a Scottish office last spring and has changed its approach to pricing as part of its marketing effort. Hamilton College is enthusiastic about the help and support it has received.

SIMS has done a lot of work on adapting its system for the Scottish market. SIMS now caters for presentation to SEB and Scotvec, and minor oversights - for example, the school year is still assumed to begin in September - have not proved an obstacle to Hamilton College.

Following a demonstration to its governors and administrative staff 15 months ago, Hamilton College had various SIMS modules installed one year ago, supported by some 20 days of on-site training. Only MIDAS, the administration module, and Nova-T, the timetabler, were in Windows, with the rest still under DOS (finance, personnel, report generating, input and system management). SIMS has since said that the school could have upgraded the personnel module to Windows.

The school took on additional clerical help for input, previously having relied on manual records. Next year it expects to export its data for SEB and Scotvec and should be able to create its timetable using Nova-T. It does not yet use the system to generate reports or letters to parents.

On the finance side, the school will be using the system to issue fee notes from December. The common source of the finance module is a positive feature of SIMS compared with SCET Works and Phoenix whose finance software, although linked, is written and maintained by separate companies. Tony Leach stresses that it's early days, but "anything I had hoped for, either it can do it now, or it's on the way."

SIMS, tel: 01234 838080


Stirling High School did not choose to install Phoenix software; the choice was made on its behalf by Stirling Council after a systematic evaluation of five possible suppliers, involving presentations to a panel of headteachers and advisers, in January. Neighbouring Clackmannanshire has also ordered Phoenix this year, bringing the number of its Scottish authorities to four (Orkney and Shetland have used the system for years).

Installation was in two phases: seven secondaries and three primaries in May and June, with the remaining 40 primaries following in August and September. The schools formed a user group which first met in October. The next stage will be the introduction of the linked finance system which is based on SAGE accounts, also running under Windows.

Although data was transferred from SCAMP by the suppliers, Stirling High input newly-verified pupil data from scratch. Rector Greig Ingram and office staff decided this would be more reliable and no more work than editing the Scamp data which was incomplete and dated. Inputting was completed during the summer, with overtime for the office staff. The office then sent print-outs back to parents for verification this term - an important check for reliability.

Details of teaching and ancillary staff have also been input. Teaching sets and curriculum data have been entered, and daily attendance is handled through the system, including reasons for absence. The computerised timetable created by Colin Thomson, deputy head, will be imported into Phoenix later this term. The payoffs for all this work have been considerable. Not only are pupil details available almost instantaneously, but various documents which used to be created manually can be output from Phoenix. "I'm surprised how smoothly it all went," says office administrator Joyce Tortolano. "Everything you need is there, and it's all easy to use, in a different league from Scamp."

A separate Phoenix module deals with examinations presentations and results, both SEB and Scotvec. The school is now ready to send off its first floppy disc to the SEB. As one of seven pilot schools for the national Management Information Systems project, it is working towards automating the return of the two biennial census forms required by the Scottish Office. All this has been achieved with little training: the school has had only two half-days on-site training (including software installation) and three half-days of group training.

Phoenix, Key Solutions, tel: 0181 460 9766


The Scottish Council for Educational Technology has been working on SCETWorks for more than two years, but the long-awaited final version was to depend on the release this spring of the Windows 95 version of Dataflex, its underlying programming language. It is a brand-new approach, coded from scratch and boldly targeted at Windows 95 only, and was originally to have been launched at SCET's Wired World conference in November. In fact, there was only a demonstration of an incomplete prototype, and it is now due to be launched in January.

Earlier versions were demonstrated in authorities throughout Scotland (except Strathclyde). A more complete version was shown in early March to various people with an interest, and in summer, two schools - Beeslack Community High School, Penicuik and Mearns Academy, Aberdeenshire - had pre-release versions installed and supported by SCET. Mearns Academy did not go ahead with the pilot because of staff ill-health, but Beeslack used SCETWorks from late April until early July.

Assistant head Jim Yuille, a member of the SCETWorks design team for two years, says the April version was "a step forward", although "it was not yet complete". Registration worked well, and was easier than under Scamp. But there were problems with certain curricular aspects, and parts of the software needed revision to make it easier to use.

Although the school could not use data transfer to Scotvec and SEB, he says, it could see how it should work. It joined with its four associated primaries using primary SCETWorks - and although two "did not got off the ground for various reasons", two used it with a measure of success.

"One aspect that worked well was data transfer from Scamp," says Yuille. Certain fields were incomplete - inevitably, as Scamp did not always collect everything SCETWorks needed, such as family details.

Mr Yuille is optimistic: "I still believe it has a future but it needed a deal more work before it could be released." Having had no contact with the process since July, he has no idea how the improvements have gone, but he is reluctant to consider other systems, although he is aware of alternatives such as Phoenix and SIMS.

SCET's publicity describes SCETWorks as a "complex, multi-layered software package designed to incorporate all the administration and management functions required by the Scottish education system . . . not just supremely easy to use, but also fast, friendly, efficient and reliable". But the user is expected to pull data across "into your preferred choice of spreadsheet, database or other management tools"; and SCET recommends the use of WinQL, a reporting tool that requires the user to frame queries in specific ways.

This assumption that the user is familiar with data exportimport routines, and the use of general-purpose software, is in sharp contrast to the Phoenix philosophy which provides simple word processing from within the package for those too timid or inexperienced to tackle a mail merge with their word processor.

SCET, tel: 0141 337 5000

Jacquetta Megarry had a consultancy role for the Stirling Council, looking at the range of options for schools management infor

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