School Management Information Systems (MIS) have developed over the past twenty years from relatively rudimentary databases that held parental data into the complex integrated systems now available. Today School MIS are asked to perform a range of key tasks including admissions, pupil tracking, discipline, reporting, fee billing, HR and a range of other functions. Choosing a School MIS is one of the most far-reaching decisions that the senior team will make for it has a direct impact on the operational efficiency of the organisation. However, because each school has its own structure, management style, priorities and is at a different stage of organisational maturity, it is very likely that no single MIS will be perfect. Few schools can afford to commission a bespoke MIS and off-the-peg solutions always entail a degree of compromise.
Reticence to Change Schools are understandably reticent to change MIS for a number of reasons. First, it is costly both financially and in terms of organisational time and energy; secondly, a new MIS entails an enormous amount of training of both administrative and teaching staff; and thirdly, a new MIS usually entails a short period when organisational performance drops as key personnel get used to the new system. Thus it is common for schools to live with an under-performing MIS for a number of years, before it reaches the ‘tipping point’ at which the short term inconvenience of changing MIS outweighs the ongoing inefficiencies.
Consider carefully who makes the decision The range of tasks that a modern MIS is asked to perform inevitably means that different users value those aspects of an MIS’ functionality that relate to their own area: the finance department typically emphasising the importance of fee billing, the Director of Studies - pupil tracking, the teachers – reporting and so on. Because different MIS have different strengths and weakness, the process of choosing an MIS can be problematic if one area of the school has a disproportionate say in the decision. Senior Leaders should beware the ‘silo mentality’: many a school Bursar has driven the decision over the choice of MIS without any regard to the academic needs of the school. All the key stakeholders (finance team, administrators, teachers and parents) need to have input into the decision-making process - the choice of an MIS should be a whole-school decision.
Strengths and Weaknesses – Remember their roots There is no perfect MIS – they all have relative strengths and weaknesses. One way to understand these is to look at how each of the products started life and how they have evolved to what is on offer today. SIMS was founded on school admin needs in the UK state sector where timetabling and monitoring attendance/truancy were key; WCBS’s 3Sys and Double First’s Engage began their lives as accounts packages, which developed school administration modules and now have become integrated MIS; whereas iSAMS was initially designed from a teachers’ perspective as a bespoke product focusing on academic assessment and reporting. Today all of these products have developed and increased functionality, but it is worth bearing in mind where they have come from, as it typically explains why administrators favour SIMS, bursars and finance departments like 3Sys and Engage, and why teachers like iSAMS.
Two Approaches: There are broadly two approaches to MIS. Schools are faced with a choice between the ease of use of the integrated modules and the additional functionality of the free-standing specialist software package.
- Approach One: MIS Core + modulesAll modern MIS are modular, offering a core database function to which schools can add modules that perform other functions: timetabling, tracking, reporting, internal and external examinations, mark books, admissions, attendance, co-curricular and so on. The advantages of the ‘core + module’ approach allows schools to develop their use of the MIS at their own pace and that there are no compatibility issues of integrating the MIS with software produced by different firms.
- Approach Two: MIS Core + specialist softwareThe problem with the MIS Core + modules approach is that off-the-peg modules are never going to be as good as free-standing specialist software packages. Specialist software companies inevitably can devote more time to developing their area. For example, specialist timetabling software might make constructing the timetable easier for the admin team, but it may not be as easy to input and access data. The primary role of the MIS in this approach is to hold central data and to integrate the various “best-of-breed” specialist packages, which is much easier said than done.
- How easy is it to move data between the MIS and specialist packages?
- Does the MIS support team provide a specific Application Program Interface (API) to facilitate this? (These are a set of protocols and routines which integrate two software packages to enable them to share data seamlessly.)
And so to the Cloud It is almost certain that during the next ten years schools will migrate all of their data to the Cloud. It will do this for two reasons: first, it will be cheaper; secondly, it will make upgrades and data management easier for the MIS providers to service their products. This is available now, but, at present, schools are reticent to trust their data to remote, off-site servers. This is no different to schools a hundred years ago, most of whom had their own electricity generators because they didn’t trust the National Grid. In ten years’ time I suspect that we find the idea of on-site server rooms, as anachronistic as we do on-site electricity generators.