‘MIS’ery, education IT should be open | Nathaniel Read

'MIS'ery, education IT should be open

MIS’ (or Management Information Systems) are arguably the most important part of any school (whether primary or secondary) or colleges. In both my primary and secondary school/college Capita’s SIMS (School Information Management System) has been the MIS of choice and is used in 83% of schools in the UK. This is, plain and simple a monopoly.

The 2010 Report by the IoE said that the marketplace was uncompetitive, dominated by a lone supplier that’s increasing in cost, violating both EU and UK laws on procurement and without an open and using a platform without an open or shared data format.

Capita SIMS became a monopoly when local authorities purchased it all the schools they ran, acting as their initial MIS and have stuck with the system since then as it’s easier to remain with the same platform. I’ve only had real experiences with the Lancashire Education Authority, who run SIMS although I believe there are also similar problems in other LEAs.

Over the years, SIMS has expanded its tentacles from just core utilities like pupil management to everything from parent online access to dinner money management, all at pretty hefty additional costs. Inside the walled garden there is little space for third-party developers and plugin makers, with official API access requiring you to be a Capita Partner, something that costs several thousand pounds.

The rather descriptive phrasing of an EduGeek user calling SIMS a massive sea anchor of a product due to its low initial cost for LA schools to be drawn in but with high priced plug-ins on top.

It stalls advancement of technology in education too by locking teachers to Windows due to the programme’s codebase being written in Micrsoft’s .NET framework and using Microsoft SQL server for a backend. There are obviously some hacks to make this work on other platforms such as macOS and Linux, including delivering them as Citrix hosted apps for staff or wrapping them with Wine (however this would cause nightmares for support); but platforms aren’t the core problem, the problem is the software in the first place.

SIMS has some problems in itself, being an unreliable beast with all sorts of issues being had with its database having to be mapped as a network drive in Windows and Microsoft SQL server sitting beneath it, at the very least the whole programme needs a bottom up rewrite.

The question is, is now the time for some government intervention?

If private companies such as Capita have shown that they can’t write a functional programme or keep up with the times, surely GDS or the DfE could build up something:

  • That has a nice GUI, doesn’t need to be something fancy but just functional
  • Easy accessible reporting strategies and statistics clearly available to staff
  • Free for all (or very cheap) and open source
  • Make all key parts of a modern education system core parts of the system, handling student info, timetabling, achievement, behaviour management, dinner money and parent tracking
  • Build for the future, build a web based frontend system (wrap it in Electron maybe)
  • Don’t lock out the developers, publish an API and add plugin functionality for the system meaning if people have great ideas for expandability they can use them.

A system like this with core functionality baked in, made open source and developed by the Government could easily save schools thousands of pounds with SIMS Learning Gateway (web access for parents) alone costing ≈£9k for installation and another £1k a year in maintenance. This new system wouldn’t lock out the vendors like Capita either, as they could make additional functionalities through plugins or provide support services for the system.

A serious reform is needed of MIS’ post the 2010 Becta report, and not much seems to have changed yet.

Another issue with just creating a new system though is that itself could become a monopoly, maybe an open standard for education would be better and allow schools to move between different MIS’.

  Sources: [bringmoredata](http://bringmoredata.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/mis-market-moves-sims-still-dominate.html), [Institute of Education](http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/15716/1/school%20management%20information%20systems%20and%20value%20for%20money%202010.pdf), [teachertoolkit](http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2016/01/17/time-to-move-over/)
  Capita and SIMS are both trademarks of Capita Plc.