Key considerations when thinking of changing your MIS

Changing your management information system: Checks and challenges

This article explores the issues involved and the decisions which need to be made by schools who are considering changing their management systems. Migrating school systems is never without pain, but with careful management there can be considerable benefits.

We are grateful to Duncan Baldwin for his contribution of this article.  Duncan is the former Deputy Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders. He has worked in the MIS industry supporting schools who change their management system, and as a senior leader in a number of schools. He currently leads on quality assurance and performance for Endeavour Learning Trust.

The starting point of this paper is an assumption that you are exploring changing your management system and provides a set of checks and challenges to consider when doing so. Before you embark on this journey you should have ensured that you are making the most of your current MIS. It may be that with training, changes to IT infrastructure or awareness of additional systems such as data visualisation and integration software your current system will meet your needs.

Drivers for change

It is now much more common for schools to change MIS providers then it used to be; some commentators track[1] this movement based on which system was used to make census returns and this has shown a noticeable shift in recent years. There are several possible drivers for this, including:

  1. Delivering harmonised systems across a multi-academy trust.
  2. Reducing the total cost of ownership.
  3. Improving the benefits derived from the system and hence achieving better value.

Many MATs ensure that their academies use a common management system. The advantages are numerous: reducing the amount of specialist system knowledge needed to deliver the trust’s data needs, expertise can be shared more easily and data and reports are easier to produce and replicate in a consistent format. For trusts, the ability to synthesise data from multiple schools for governance and regulation purposes is essential and much easier when they share a common MIS. Some management systems are easier to maintain and use centrally for this purpose than others.

The total market value of MIS and related systems across English maintained schools and academies runs into many millions of pounds every year. All of this is derived from public money and governing boards and trusts collectively need to be confident that it is well spent and achieves best value, particularly in such a challenging financial climate. The true total cost of ownership for management systems is a complex calculation, going well beyond just the cost of annual licences and support. It extends into the specification needed for individual devices, server costs, energy use, staffing costs connected to running the system and continued training and development.

It’s important to distinguish between the steady-state costs of a new system and the cost of change itself. This may be considerable and has implications beyond the merely financial:

  • Licence costs for the new system
  • Costs of terminating any legacy contracts for both MIS and associated systems
  • Training and development for teachers, support staff and leaders
  • Services provided to migrate data from the legacy MIS to the new one.

We must not ignore at this point the potential cost of choosing the wrong system. Some schools have not considered the wider case for change sufficiently well, taken a hurried, ill-informed decision to migrate and then been caught out by purchasing a system which did not meet their needs. In some cases schools have even reverted to their original system. The potential damage of such a poor decision is considerable, including the risk associated with moving so much data backwards and forwards, and the leadership issues involved in such questionable decision making. Even where a migration is relatively straightforward and the school or trust is happy with the new provider, it may take some time to realise tangible savings

Over recent years there have been a number of entrants to the MIS market, with more emerging all the time. Older legacy systems may not have kept up with advances in technology, data management or design and useability. In many cases schools use additional systems alongside their MIS in areas such as assessment, communications, finance and safeguarding. It may be that these systems are replicated to some extent within other MIS and are therefore potentially redundant. If so, there may be some savings to be made beyond the MIS itself.

Testing the market

Often the interest in changing systems within a school or trust starts with a small number of people. Sometimes this is borne from experience using a different system. Remember that it is rare for anyone to have deep knowledge and experience with multiple management systems and even rarer for them to have experience of their respective migration processes. You may also have heard positive stories from colleagues in other schools about this. Conversely, you may have heard some horror stories.

If you have decided to explore changing systems, you need to carry out objective due diligence on a range of available management systems, rather than allowing one clarion call to prevail. Make sure you are aware of the set of possible providers and whether their systems match the needs of your school or trust, especially suitability by school phase. Do what you can to keep an open mind until the due diligence is complete.

Where a multi-academy trust takes a decision that several academies will change their systems, the value of the contract may trigger the threshold for a competitive procurement exercise. These exercises are designed to ensure that there is a fair chance for any potential providers to compete for the contract. If a trust is in this situation it is worth reviewing the outcome of a recent high court judgment[2] where the judge ruled that breaches in the procurement process were found to be serious enough that the contract should have been awarded to the other bidder, and awarded damages. The key issues determined by the judge were:

Trusts in this situation would do well to get good quality legal advice and support for the process. A deeper explanation of the issues can be read here.

Management systems are complex. Getting a comprehensive overview of a new system and a feel for whether it would be a good match for your own setting will take some time. You may find it helpful to engage an independent advisor who will have broader knowledge and has guided other schools through MIS procurement and migration.

When you have a shortlist of possible systems, it’s highly advisable to contact and, preferably, visit other schools who have been through the process. The potential provider will probably have reference sites who will be willing to host you but bear in mind these are the schools where the experience has been the most positive. Do your own research to find out where the experience has been less positive. In doing so, be careful about who is providing this feedback; does it come from a comprehensive evaluation across the school using the new provider or from one or two individuals who are likely to be more vocal, use unmoderated channels to express their views and perhaps have a narrower viewpoint?

The experience of change is unlikely to be completely positive with all users in a school. This is partly because the daily engagement with management systems varies so much between different people with different functions. Teachers use classroom-focussed interfaces which developers will have been careful to build with this type of use in mind. Of course, teachers need to be supported with systems which deliver what they need in the classroom, but overall they are relatively infrequent users and their use is straightforward compared to others within your school.

Some key staff, on the other hand, have roles which are often almost exclusively bound to the use of MIS. Their experience in areas such as attendance, admissions, timetabling and curriculum management, assessment or finance is crucial and they will be able to help you interrogate a potential new provider more deeply. For example, a sales demonstration will no doubt focus on the functionality experienced on a day-to-day basis but use your colleagues to help you investigate what significant processes such as promotion to a new academic year, census returns, timetable construction and integration with class memberships, and creating and sending reports to parents all look like in practice. This is a particularly important area to explore with reference site schools. They will have navigated their new system through an entire academic year and will have a more realistic view of the rather less glamourous, but fundamental and mission critical, aspects of the new system.

Do bear in mind though that alongside deep operational familiarity with existing systems may come some nostalgia or potentially a deeper-rooted fear of change. Learning significant new systems can be daunting, especially where members of staff have used one system for a good deal of time. As I wrestle with my modern word processor writing this paper, my heart still tells me the best word processor I ever used was on my BBC Model B back in the 1980s. I need my head to convince me otherwise. Colleagues whose skill set is strongly embedded in one management system may feel similarly. Encourage long-term users like this to take an open-minded approach but capitalise on their rich understanding of the core business processes involved, rather than nuances about the user interfaces or routines. Does the new system get from A to B with minimal fuss, especially in the case of complex processes, and is it obvious from the design that the developer truly understood the needs of the school and the user when building the system?

This understanding is likely to be at its most profound for secondary schools in the area of curriculum planning, timetable construction, integration with the new academic year and allocation of pupils to classes. This is probably the most complex and risk-laden process undertaken by a secondary school. A poor experience in this area will undermine the confidence of the staff as there are implications across the entire management system and for many mission critical aspects of the school.

Testing the new product

As an example of the depth of due diligence needed in just this area – timetable and curriculum management for example, consider asking these questions:

  • Does the new system have its own native timetabling system, built around smooth integration? How powerful is it? How much time will it take to learn? Is it based on familiar timetabling language (blocks, bands etc) to make the learning and operation easier?
  • Or, will the system accommodate imported timetable files from other timetabling systems, and if so, are there limitations to the data carried across?
  • Can pupils be assigned to groups in parallel with timetable construction and scheduling, or must one follow the other, thereby leading to a considerable increase in the amount of time taken for the complete process?
  • Is it straightforward and quick to upload the new timetable to the management system, with pupils’ timetables altered automatically?
  • How is the timetable maintained during the year if minor alterations are required?
  • Is class and year promotion to the new academic year simple to manage and carried out quickly?

A primary school is unlikely to have these types of issues around academic management, but may find that assessment is its most important area. With a degree of flexibility in curriculum content and approaches, it’s essential that any system accommodates a range of assessment approaches but also allows systematic reporting, including integration with other types of data such as attendance and behaviour.

To ensure that primary assessment can take place in a way which the school needs, you should consider the following questions:

  • Is there a fully functioning assessment component to the MIS, or is it assumed that a school will use a third party system?
  • Are there any restrictions on the nature and frequency of the assessment data the school wishes to record?
  • Is there a good balance between flexibility in the assessment system, and data validation, which reduces errors and improves teachers’ experience of entering data?
  • Will the system perform calculations, sorting and filtering so that routine assessment tasks can remain within the assessment area rather than needing to be exported and reimported?
  • Can assessment data be synthesised with other types of data such as behaviour and attendance within the system?

A trust making a decision to move to a single MIS across all its schools needs to balance the issues across phases and between types of users very carefully. How does the experience of teachers compare to that of support staff who live and breathe the system? What is the balance between deep functionality and user experience? Can the system truly support the needs of a large trust by reporting from multiple schools at once?

It’s a good idea to form a project group, with representatives from the main types of staff. As well as being key to making the decision they can become instrumental in the smooth implementation of the new system. The project group needs to have equal access to each potential provider, so make sure they have the support and time they need. A decision of this magnitude is much easier to take if colleagues from across the school or trust are integral to the process.

Checks and Challenges: a systematic approach to changing your MIS

Start with ‘Why?’

  • Understand the key drivers for change. Cost? MAT consistency? Frustration with current system?
  • If cost is the prevailing issue, how much does the current MIS truly cost for licences and support? Be sure to factor in all the hidden costs, including servers, power, workstations at the correct specification, training etc and the costs of security if you use a physical file server.
  • Don’t forget the cost of third-party systems which make use of your current MIS and which could form part of the savings.

Then Move to ‘Who?’

  • Who will make the decision on behalf of the school or MAT?
  • Involve a group of staff with a range of roles who understand the key business processes needed with individual schools and the MAT as a whole.
  • Who are the potential MIS providers? Ask how they can work with you to support the process. Are you sure they have a product which works for your phase?
  • Can you engage with other schools who have migrated systems, who will give a ‘warts and all’ testimony about the process?
  • Find some schools where it didn’t go so well. What were the reasons?
  • Think about those staff who would be most deeply affected by a migration, whose confidence may be undermined. They need to be fully part of the decision-making process.
  • Even if this is a decision being made by a MAT, it’s incredibly important to understand and support the key people who operate mission critical processes within the school.

Next, it’s the ‘What?’

  • If frustration regarding functionality is an important issue, be clear about that and what it is you will be looking for in a different system. Could you resolve this by additional training our a linked system and avoid the need for a new MIS altogether?
  • Use key personnel to dig deep into the new system. Has it been engineered with the needs of schools in mind? By all means consider how teachers will use this system in the classroom, but you will need to understand how the really significant MIS processes are managed.
  • If you plan to retain some additional systems, will your new MIS integrate with those?

Be clear about the ‘How much?’

  • A new provider will charge you for the new software as well as the migration process (training, data integrity checks and transfer etc). Factor these costs into the long-term estimate.
  • What about the personal costs? It has been known for long-standing members of staff to move on faced with the ordeal of MIS migration and the need to learn new skills. Is this a possibility? How much would it cost to replace them, train a new member of staff etc? Or could this be a potential saving, if the new system can be managed centrally and operated over several school

When to change?

  • There isn’t a particularly good time to change MIS. At almost every point during the term the school will be engaged in a significant activity. Some parallel running is possible. For example you may be able to create exam entries and receive results back into a legacy system whilst running the new MIS for everything else.
  • Be aware of other key activities such as census, options, promoting the school etc before agreeing to a time to introduce the new system.

Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

  • With a panel of colleagues involved in making a decision, opinions will vary about the quality of aspects of any particular MIS. It’s unlikely any one product will tick absolutely every box to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Some will say MIS X isn’t as good as the current system for activity Y. The key here is to balance what is good with what is good enough. Bear in mind the flawed averaging process referred to earlier; it’s important to reach a single, moderated view even outside a full competitive tender arrangement.
  • There may be a recommendation to maintain existing third-party systems for some key business processes, such as assessment. This is fine, so long as data can be integrated, the ‘single version of the truth’ is maintained and the costs of additional systems are factored into the total cost of ownership.

Take everyone with you

Once you have made a decision to change MIS, make sure the entire community of staff is aware of the reasons, the timescale and the implications for their own work. Let them know that there will be an impact but your decision has been taken by a wide group of colleagues and will in time lead to benefits for staff and students.

A new provider is likely to have a predetermined set of training for your staff but this will not work for every setting. Think about how your staff need to be trained, where the priorities are and the approaching key activities where you will need the new system.

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