Saturday, 17 January 2015

What to look for in a School Management Information System (MIS)

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. 
  1. Approach One: MIS Core + modules 
    All 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. 
  2. Approach Two: MIS Core + specialist software 
    The 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. 
Compatibility and Integration When researching MIS, one of the most important areas to investigate is the extent to which their product is compatible with other specialist products. Key questions are: 
  • 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.) 
Look to the Future Few schools are likely to change MIS more often than every ten years. Those making the decision need to consider that there will be significant software developments within the lifetime of the new MIS. A closed system might meet today’s needs, but it is very unlikely to be fit for purpose in five years’ time if it cannot integrate with other products. Multi-browser products that can flex and integrate with other systems are more likely continue delivering functionality in the mid-2020s. 
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.  

Published in the Independent Schools Magazine February 2015 p.12


  1. Great post Mark.

    Having just completed a procurement of an MIS for a group of schools, I am struck by the market's bizarre lack of focus on supporting teachers, day to day, with improving their pupils' learning. There are good products out there, but they can be hard to spot.

    I blogged about what a modern MIS should be aiming for a while back - I think we're still a way off this:

  2. Will form over a few comments:

    Dear Mark

    I have no doubt you have much experience in this area, I have just read your article, if you will allow me to go over some of your points.

    Reticence to Change

    It makes my job very tough, though I find this applies more so to the UK, over here we seem to have the attitude that if the chief decision maker has selected an MIS but the staff aren’t finding it the most useful, they tend to become entrenched, to not accept that the wrong decision was made, maybe a very British trait.

    Whereas the Middle East for example, will quickly change rather than stick with something they know will cause issues further down the road, they would rather sort the issue out now rather than develop workarounds or a legacy which could prove difficult further along.

    Us Brits are very happy to patch over issues and make do, the keep calm and carry on attitude, we rarely like to cause a fuss, unless absolutely necessary or reaching the ‘tipping point’ as you put it.

    Consider carefully who makes the decision

    I whole heartily agree with your sentiments on this matter, I have seen this happen many times, once again, mostly in the UK. We have had situations where most of the SMT preferred our product but have lost out due to the power of one particular member of staff, either through links i.e. one school has a Governor who is the former Financial Director of SAGE, so they stick with SAGE, a Headmaster has had close ties with the development team or their lack of motivation to learn another MIS which they grew familiar with when at a previous school.

    School bursars do tend to have a major say, after all, they control the purse strings!

  3. Part 2:

    Strengths and Weaknesses – Remember their roots

    The roots matter to some degree, though Nintendo started as a card game, Pixar as a Graphics Team, you could argue that they started in their respective fields, one gaming the other using software for computer graphics, you wouldn’t hold it against either company with respect to where they are now.

    When DoubleFirst was born in 1987, computers were nowhere near as powerful then as now, I know at my boarding school the internet had only just been invented so the idea of an MIS would have been very new, I would say it allowed us to change with time and listen to our customers creating a more powerful MIS covering all areas of running a school.

    Engage does have a very powerful accounts package but that doesn’t mean its short on other areas, our administration tools, timetable, activities, analytics and fees modules are all very capable in their own right. You mention iSAMS was made with teachers in mind, I would agree that its UI design is pleasant on the eye but if it was purely designed for teachers, I’m very surprised that it does not have integrated lesson planning and a homework setting, like Engage does.

    We are currently expanding at 50 schools a year, the company continues to employ new staff and gain new knowledge and experience every year. We have offices in the Middle East, Singapore and Australia, meaning we can give 24 hour support to our schools worldwide.

    Look to the Future

    I would agree with the 10 years if they use Engage, we are always updating and moulding our product to the will of our clients, our development plan is based on their requests and direction, in fact we have a very popular share ideas frame work, each school is given a number of votes, no one has more status than the other, i.e. a school with 50 pupils will have as much say as Harrow in the Far East for example. If a school suggests an idea for improvement and receives a number of votes, our development team will then look to implement their idea. That way Engage is always evolving and hence why not off the shelf as I mentioned before.

    Technology does move very fast and it is naïve to think that you can always keep up and make sure your product is using the latest programming language, what you can insure however, is that you use a solid technology and a robust system that allows flexibility and room for manoeuvre for when the inevitable changes will be needed. As we know, Capita SIMS is doing a complete re-write due for 2017, the impact on its customers is not known at present but since they have no main competitors in the state market they have room to force schools to adapt to them rather than the other way round.

    We are an independent school specialist, we focus purely on this market, this allows us to be more focused on their needs and not trying to keep both state and independent happy.