MIS Procurement – Choosing and Implementing the Best System For You

Neil Limbrick is an independent consultant who has worked in an IT Strategy Role with MATs and Schools for over 20 years. He is currently working with over 100 different networks through theEducationCollective made of up of 10000 individuals in over 5000 schools.

His vast experience and knowledge in this area make him extremely well placed to provide insight into the challenges and opportunities of procuring you MIS and how to manage the change both from a technical and a people point of view.

MIS Procurement

MIS Procurement, on the surface appears very straightforward. If you look at the DfE website, for example, you will see that they have specified 11 MIS providers you should at with a range of areas that these providers should be covering.

However, if you scratch the surface, things are not quite as straightforward. Out of the 11 providers specified, Arbor, RM Integris and ScholarPack are owned by a one company, and ISAMS and Ed:gen are owned by one company.

  • Advanced Learning Cloud School
  • Arbor
  • Bromcom
  • Databridge MIS
  • Ed:gen
  • Horizons/Pupil Asset
  • RM Integris
  • ScholarPack
  • SchoolPod

This means that out of 11 providers you only actually have a choice of 8 companies. At present it is the intention for companies to continue to support multiple products, but it would make sense to expect that these products are streamlined at some point in the future.

The DfE also provides a very comprehensive list of comparators. However, apart from finance, timetable and pupil report writer, all providers offer all these comparators so there is little to differentiate between them.

Attendance data
Supports statutory reporting
Pupil report writer
Assessment and Tracking
Behaviour monitoring
Parent and carer interaction
Data Reporting  
Mobile access
Data protection information
Cloud hosting
Migration support  

The Challenges

It is very difficult to compare providers – despite the fact that their offering is similar. You cannot get 5 prices from 5 providers and compare them. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. They have different licencing models. Some providers will have a large up front cost with a lesser cost spread over the subsequent years. Others spread the cost out more evenly over the length of the contract.
  2. They have different tiers. You have to be clear which areas you want to use and there be points in the second and third tiers that you would want to use.
  3. They have different capabilities and this is tied in with how they use third party add ons. For example, some of leading MIS providers may not have a timetabling capability and you will have to buy that in from a third party.

Perhaps the most significant challenge will be the impact on people. Your team may be reluctant to change and they will put up different barriers to hinder the incorporation of a new system and provide reasons why it is important to stay with the system that you have. It is important to recognise that change will provide stress and it will be significant. It is also unlikely that they will see the positives that a new system will bring until quite a way through the process. It is critical to get their support and buy in as their engagement will make or break the success of a system.

What do you want to get out of your MIS?

When looking at procuring an MIS system you need to consider where you are and where you want to be. There are three stages on your MIS journey and at any point you could find yourself somewhere along this scale:

Crisis management: Your system is just not working properly. It could be that it is not backing up or emails are not working. Instead of using the system correctly, you are spending most of your time just trying to make it work.

Stable and reliable: Your system is doing what you paid for. Probably most people are at this stage especially if you have had the system for a while. You are probably comfortable with it and you do not have to think too hard about using it as it does all the basic things that you need it to do.

Value Added: In most cases you are probably not using all the features that you can and, as a result, you are not making the most of the features and working it to its maximum potential. This is true of any IT provision. When you are closer to the Value Added end of the spectrum you can then think about getting rid of your third party tools that you are relying on thus saving time and money.

So, when you are choosing a new MIS system you need to think about reaching beyond the Stable and Reliable and looking towards what more the system can give you. It is unlikely that you will find a stand out provider and you will probably narrow the field down to 2 or 3. However, the good news is it is difficult to make a bad decision – any MIS you buy, will let you do the basics and achieve the Stable and Reliable stage.

MIS Procurement – The Process

There are a lot of variables and you need to approach this systematically and logically.

In the first instance, you have to work out the possible providers by looking through your DfE list  and ruling out the non starters. This can be more complex if you are a MAT as your spend will drive you over the PCR threshold meaning you will have to go to open tender. This issue with this is that you cannot narrow down your providers. As a result a company could submit a sub standard solution based on, for example, excel spreadsheets and you would have to consider it causing you to waste time and effort. You can eliminate this sort of provider by being very specific in your requirements e.g., the solution has to be cloud based or has to have a certain sort of login.

After ruling out the non starters then you will probably have the glossy brochure presentation. Clearly they will not focus on the weaknesses of the system but it is essential to do a “deep dive” investigation into what the system will do in practice. Ask the provider to show you how the system would do a practical, everyday function so that you understand how you it would work on a day to day basis.  

You need to prioritise as one system will not deliver everything you need. For example, it is understandable that people focus on the census and while it is a big task it lasts just a few days in the year. Therefore, if the system is not as good at running the census but it is excellent on day to day tasks it is worth making that sacrifice to make the daily tasks quicker and easier.

Do not worry about third party add ons too early in the process. Once you have narrowed your providers down then you can factor in any potential additional third party costs.

Make sure as many staff as possible are involved, particularly attendance and assessment teams. If they are not on board you will have problems further down the line.

Key factors to consider

Procuring the best system is not just about the price – if it were then the Excel spreadsheet solution would win every time. A system may be cheap in monetary terms, but expensive in terms of time.

Data entry: think about where data will be entered i.e. at home or at school; how many people will be entering data; who will be reviewing the data and what sort of data you will need.

Restraints of existing contract: the divorce process will be strict. It is unlikely that you will be able to leave part way through a contract and you will be unable to extend if you need 3 to 4 months, for example, for a new system to bed in or before a new system is fully operational.

Existing data: it is unlikely that you will have access to existing data so you will need to extract it before the end of the contract. This is made more difficult if you have a cloud-based system as you will not have physical back ups so you need to get the data out.

Increasingly contracts only allow you to use one system so you cannot run two concurrently. There are caveats stating you have to use as a single system particularly around SMS messaging as providers will be charging for every message you send so they will not want to let go of this revenue stream.  

Migration process differs for every provider and will require different levels of input from the school and different companies will require different amounts of data e.g. some require 3 years other 5 years.  Do not use the migration process as a factor! It is relevant for a very short period of time and not worth sacrificing the longer-term effectiveness of an excellent system for a short time of pain.

How to score a system

Do not ask your team to pick a favourite as it is likely that people will pick different ones, for different reasons and you will undoubtedly cause upset if someone’s favourite is not chosen.

Ask people to RAG rate a system against different criteria assessment, timetabling, attendance. Specify clearly what each colour stands for as follows:

Red – impossible to undertake my role without significant issue  

Amber – possible to undertake my role with minimum adjustment

Green – will allow improvements to my role by either saving time or increasing what can be achieved

Clearly you want as many greens as possible to ease the transition and capitalise on any improvement opportunities. It is also recommended that you understand why they are ruling out a specific system and that the views are valid.

If you are working in a MAT you may want to ask each school, rather than each member of staff to give you a RAG rating.

Implementation and Training

Once the decision is made, timing is key. Do not put the training in too early as people will forget. Ensure that the training is done as close as possible to implementation. Try, if possible, to avoid implementing a new system in September as the start of the school year is incredibly busy. Consider Christmas as a time to migrate as there is less happening in schools and less time between training and full migration.  

Do not expect people to double enter as part of the training process as it simply will not happen and is prone to mistakes.

And finally, you will never feel ready to implement and it will feel like you are jumping off a cliff but in the end you just have to go for it.

Your To Do List

The task may seem large but in the end, it comes down to 8 key points:

  1. Confirm existing contract details
  2. Confirm any legal / policy obligations – i.e. tender process
  3. Convene a staff working party
  4. Rule out non-starters
  5. Get “glossy” sales pitches (around 5 or 6 providers)
  6. Shortlist and define a practical demonstration (3 or 4 tasks)
  7. Gather feedback from staff to inform decision
  8. Buy biscuits / chocolate ready for D Day

And good luck with your process!

Neil, in conjunction with Minerva, has recorded a Webinar on this subject. If you are interested in listening to it, please click here.

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