Guest post Gerald Haigh

At the end of November I paid a short visit to the University of Loughborough, where Microsoft Gold Partner Capita SIMS were hosting their annual SIMS Partnership Schools Conference. SIMS, with Microsoft SQL Server at its heart, is far and away the market leader in school management information systems with 22,000 users, and their Partnership Schools Programme enables them to build a close and mutually beneficial relationship with forty or so schools using the SIMS suite to the full. For me, that means the Conference is a good place to go to find out about SIMS products, talk about technology more generally, and above all, meet enthusiastic and innovative teachers and network managers – people like Network Manager Scott Lynch, and Helen Williams, Vice Principal Quality and Standards, from Minsthorpe Academy in Pontefract. Over the years I’ve visited Minsthorpe and seen how they’re using technology and pupil data to drive achievement in an area of post-industrial deprivation. Relatively new in post, Scott, together with Helen and the senior team continues onward progress by overseeing a radical overhaul of the network infrastructure prior to a full deployment of Windows 8 across the school next Spring.

‘We’re aiming at building an infrastructure that will take anything we throw at it,’ says Scott. ‘The management have given us their backing to allow us to do that.’

This is clearly one to watch, so before too long, I’ll be on Minsthorpe’s doorstep again, made welcome as always, and ready to blog about their progress.

At the Conference, I also learned a little more about developments in SIMS. One that I found particularly interesting is their totally new product ‘Agora’ which is cloud-based, hosted by Microsoft’s ‘Windows Azure’.

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Briefly, ‘Agora’ (in Ancient Greece it was a gathering place or market apparently) is an online payment system that allows parents to buy school meals, order uniform items, pay for trips using a credit or debit card for online payment. It’s integrated with the management information system, so administrators can assign payments to particular classes or groups.

The main attraction, I guess, is that the experience of using it is exactly akin to that of using any online shopping site such as ‘Amazon’. But there are lots of other features that parents will like – the fact that they can see all their children’s accounts in a single view, for example, even if they’re in different schools. Every parent who’s had to start scratching about late on Sunday night for cash or a rarely used cheque-book because dinner or trip money is due next day will enjoy the convenience of Agora. And every head teacher or administrator who’s had the headache of dealing with piles of cash, trying to balance it all and maintain a secure audit trail will be equally delighted.

What is particularly interesting to me, though, wearing my Microsoft hat, is that ‘Agora’ is a cloud service, hosted by Microsoft’s ‘Windows Azure’ platform. After the Conference, I talked a little more about this to Graham Cooper, Capita SIMS Head of Product Strategy. ‘Why Azure?’ I wondered.

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‘We’re a gold partner with Microsoft of course, working closely with them all the time,’ said Graham. ‘Azure’ as well as bringing all the benefits of their expertise, provides security, backup, and up-time availability.’

In particular, he pointed out, a product like ‘Agora’ suddenly brings large numbers of parents into the picture, which means that the system has to be reliably available whenever it’s needed.

‘You just need to know it’s going to be there. You can’t have it not taking a payment – I paid my son’s dinner money late last night for example.’

Given that degree of confidence in the resilience, security and reliability of ‘Azure’, I wondered what other parts of the SIMS suite might be considered for migrating there, and Graham mentioned SIMS ‘InTouch’, a comprehensive system of home-school communication that draws on SIMS data to keep parents – and staff – fully informed by text and/or email about everything related to a child’s school life such as exam reminders, school closures, student successes, behaviour issues, emergency alerts. So where the usual parent portal or gateway, (such as SIMS Learning Gateway) makes data passively available to parents, ‘InTouch’ actually ‘pushes’ the information to them.

‘At the moment ‘InTouch’ is not hosted in Azure, but it will be at some point within the next year,’ says Graham, explaining that the reasons for the move are much the same as with the hosting of ‘Agora’

‘”InTouch” is now handling large numbers of texts and emails and it’s a matter of scaleability. ‘Azure’ gives us that and, again, that expertise and resilience.’

Finally, one thing that really struck me at the Conference, was the way that SIMS is increasingly moving into the hands of teachers. The key theme of any discussion of any MIS is summed up by the phrase, ‘Intelligent and responsive use of data’. In other words, the data’s no good sitting in the administrator’s office. It needs to be with the teachers, presented intelligibly in a form that allows them to respond to it. So over the years we’ve seen SIMS move from the school office to the departmental PC, then to the teachers’ laptops. And now, inevitably, it’s moving to tablets. At lunch I sat with a group of teachers who were excitedly passing round a tablet which had essential parts of SIMS available, with key pupil data, and it was very clear that this was the way they wanted to go. It struck me that there’s a clear role here for the flexibility and power of Microsoft Surface, and it’s going to be interesting to see SIMS and Surface working together. As we say, ‘Watch this space’.