The following has been written by Gerald Haigh, Freelance Writer for Microsoft:

Towards the end of June I went to Sandringham School in St Albans. I was looking in on one of a series of “Pioneer Days” being run by Serco for the 25 schools which will be the first to adopt the new “Progresso” Management Information System. The schools have been selected from existing Serco customers, users of the existing “Facility” MIS. Together they represent all sectors (primary, secondary, academy and independent).

“Progresso”, built on Microsoft’s SQL Server 2008 R2, is a new and potentially very strong contender in the school MIS market. Developers have done a lot of listening to teachers over many months, and this latest development phase will peak in October, when the pioneer schools start to adopt the system. They’ll be working with Serco to ensure that the product really does what both sides wish for.

So just what are the waiting users hoping for, I asked?

One common theme is a desire to have all of the school’s management and administration functions in one place. Simon Chappell, for example, ICT Director at the Wellington Academy, says “I’m looking to Progresso to be the hub of the academy, the first stop for everything. I don’t want people to have to create their own spreadsheets and use different applications.”

The same thought comes from Andrew Daly, Deputy Head at Swavesey Village College. “The analogy for me is that ‘Toys R Us’ slogan – Everything under one roof.”

Combined with an easy-to-use point of entry, this kind of integration makes it possible for teachers – whether classroom specialists or senior leaders – to collect rapidly the information they need on any student or group. That’s vital when a school’s focussed on improving life chances for students. As Andrew says, “We’ve done a lot of school improvement work with other schools as well as our own, and really the need is to keep things simple – straightforward data at peoples’ fingertips. We see a real opportunity to provide that with Progresso.”

In many of these schools, key players will be form or group tutors each with a direct responsibility for monitoring the overall learning progress of groups and individuals. As Tim Murphy, deputy head at Sandringham explains, “The role has changed dramatically over the years, from the traditional pastoral tutor to the academic mentor.”

And yet, of course tutors are also classroom teachers with full timetable commitments. So, Tim continues, “I want it to be a system that any form tutor can use easily no matter how reluctant they are with technology.”

Even better, he says, he’s hoping for “pushed” information – alerts that something’s changed and needs to be looked at. “Wouldn’t that be great? The tutor gets an automatic alert saying, ‘These students underperformed in a Geography assessment’. So she can say, ‘What happened in Geography then?’ It changes the whole nature of the conversation.”

Central to this ease of use is the concept of the “dashboard” – the first point of entry to the system. The pioneers I spoke to very much liked the Progresso dashboard, a strong feature of which is, that as well giving access to the MIS, there’s the prospect of single-sign-on integration with web services and email through Live@Edu.

Simon Chappell says, “When I saw that first dashboard with sms, email and the noticeboard all in one place, a communication hub that we can set up to suit us, I thought. ‘Wow, this is going to save us so much development time’.”

Andrew Daly feels the same way, “I’m excited about communication – SMS, Exchange, Calendars. All students have an Outlook Exchange account I see lots of opportunities for link with Exchange. That’s a key win for us.”

Interestingly, although Progresso is a cloud-based product, with data hosted by Serco, few of the pioneers raised issues about this. And Serco’s Head of Product, Paul Harrington remains relaxed about customers’ responses. He clearly feels that cloud is the future, with all the increasingly well known cost and convenience benefits, but he points out that Serco’s happy for customers to host Progresso on their own servers if they prefer.

“To me you’re either comfortable with cloud hosting or not,” he says.

Of the pioneers I spoke to, the one who spoke most strongly about cloud hosting was Tim Murphy at Sandringham, who’s looking towards cloud hosting not only for the school MIS, but for their VLE, and to the implementation of Office 365 “I see cloud as where we’re going as a school. We intend to take all our learning into the cloud environment. The days of school based servers should be on the way out.”

For some pioneers, though, the biggest buzz comes from the prospect of smartphone access to Progresso, currently being developed across every smartphone system iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and others. Far sighted ICT leaders see great possibilities of this for anytime, anywhere access, and it’s already suggested that some users, at least, will be able to do all they need to do on Progresso through their phones, without opening a laptop. Stewart Bendon, ICT Manager at Fulston Manor School in Kent, says,

“I’m very excited about the mobile apps. The majority of the staff here have some form of smartphone that they use in school.”

Microsoft values the partnership with Serco, and is taking a keen interest in the way Progresso uses the Microsoft software “stack” to produce an innovative and responsive management tool for schools. So we’ll be following the progress of these pioneer schools, here on the schools blog, over the next few months.