School Information Management System
|Original author(s)||Philip Neal (Bedfordshire LEA)|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows|
|Type||Management information system|
SIMS (School Information Management System) is a student information system, i.e. a school management information system, currently developed by Capita. It is the most widely used MIS in UK schools, claiming over 80% market share across the primary and secondary sectors.
SIMS uses a client-server architecture; the back-end service is based around Microsoft SQL Server with some business logic handled by a custom .NET Framework module. The client application is also built with .NET, and handles almost all of the data manipulation and reporting workload.
SIMS is a modular application, the core offering covering storing basic school data with modules available to handle (among other things) legal registration, the recording of achievements and sanctions and the management and documentation of public examinations. Capita also offer modules aimed at specific sectors, such as a fee billing system for private schools.
Third-party developers can build products that integrate with SIMS through Capita's "Partner Program". Schools that already own a SIMS licence can get free or reduced-price access to the SIMS API, but private companies must pay a non-trivial yearly fee to gain and then retain the ability to interface with SIMS.
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SIMS was the first MIS for schools. It was initially developed by Philip Neal, a teacher at Lea Manor High School, from 1982 to 1983. Bedfordshire County Council (Lea Manor's local education authority) then further developed the product, which began being used by other schools in 1984.
In 1988, a commercial company, SIMS Ltd, was founded to further develop SIMS.
SIMS has a market share of over 80% in the MIS industry for schools in England and Wales.
In 2005, recognising the serious issues posed by the overwhelming market dominance of SIMS and the lack of competition, Becta report highlighted the fact that the charges to schools of maintaining current Management Information Systems (MIS) from the dominant supplier has increased up to threefold since 1999. BECTA suggests that many schools and colleges are being charged ever-increasing amounts to maintain their MIS and are not receiving value for the money they spend.
The key issues that also emerged from Becta report were as follows:
- For many schools costs are escalating very significantly with charges from the dominant supplier, now between 2.5 and 3 times their 1999 levels.
- There are very significant barriers to the effective choice by schools/LAs and there is a lack of any significant contractual commitment between the dominant supplier and schools/LAs regarding the timeliness and quality of software provided.
Capita Children’s Services’ position was that the report did not adequately take account of increased government demands on schools for statutory returns or the significant growth in the number of individuals using technology in schools, both of which contribute to increased costs.
Becta established a Schools Interoperability Framework (based on the model used in the United States) which education products could easily comply with and interoperate. The director of SIMS, however, claimed that the implementation of these standard interfaces would incur a significant cost to their software.
Capita Children’s Services has been an active founding member of the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association UK since 2006 and the company has had a representative on all of the organisation’s boards. It participated in both the first Becta sponsored proof of concept project in Birmingham 2006/2007 and the second, involving Northern Ireland schools and the University of Durham (2007). Managing director of SIMS, Phil Neal, has stated that Capita’s input helps to shape the quality of the SIF data model and address concerns around the applicability of SIF in the UK, particularly with regard to security. The company was one of the first UK MIS suppliers to release a commercial SIF based solution in its SIMS Partnership Xchange product.
Bromcom have referred Capita to the OFT on three occasions. The first complaint in 1999 was not upheld and the OFT in their concluding letter to Bromcom stated “it emerged that the information which you claimed Capita had refused to supply, had never in fact been requested by you”. The second complaint which was concluded in 2003 was resolved by way of Capita providing Voluntary Assurances as to the way in which it would make interface information available; the OFT IT expert supported Capita’s position in regard to the way in which it required third parties to interface to SIMS. In the third complaint lodged in 2009, Bromcom alleged that Capita had overcharged the UK schools market by £75.4m over a ten-year period, the OFT declined to investigate the complaint.
Awards and criticism
Capita Children's Services won an award at the 2009 BETT show for its SIMS Partnership Xchange product which allows school consortiums to securely share student information to aid in delivering the 14-19 Curriculum a key part of which is the 14–19 Diploma. The company was nominated as ICT Supplier of the Year in the BETT Awards 2010.
In 2012, Capita’s SIMS Discover was shortlisted in the Leadership and Management Solutions category of the BETT Awards and was also selected by BESA as winner of the Innovation award in the Education Resources Awards.
SIMS Discover was designed to make it easier for school leaders and teachers to analyse pupil data and identify issues that might be preventing children from making good progress in school. The software enables graphs to be created simply from the data in SIMS to help schools spot patterns, such as persistent absence or a child that is falling below the expected levels of achievement, so they can make meaningful interventions to raise achievement.
Capita are also partners of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Becta.
In March 2009, Capita SIMS were said to be responsible for sending a truancy warning notice to the family of a Cheshire school student who had died two months before. Capita Children’s Services have stated that the software that was used is designed to keep track of pupils’ attendance and the school is able to produce letters to parents based on this information. When a child is no longer attending a school, for whatever reason, their data can be viewed for historical reasons but is generally hidden from view in the day-to-day running of the school. The software will allow the school to continue to run reports and produce letters to parents, as occasionally it is necessary to do so. It appears that this is what has happened in this case and Capita have now made changes to prevent this situation from happening again.
The origin of SIMS has been surrounded with controversy. This is due to the fact that private fortunes were made from a system developed with public money. Philip Neal (who was then working as a teacher for Lea Manor) wrote a program allowing teachers to produce computerised pupil reports. Bedfordshire then developed the scheme using thousands of pounds of its own money. The assets were then passed onto SIMS Ltd. MP Margaret Moran described this as ‘using council resources to effectively set up a private business’.
At the time, Tony Callaghan, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers executive member for Bedfordshire, branded the episode a "disgrace". A member of the council's education committee when SIMS became a private company, he told The TES: "It seems amazing to me that this was allowed to happen. I was always amazed that there wasn't a full and thorough investigation. I would like to see an investigation to see if any of that money can be retrieved and paid into the coffers of the county council, which funded the original operation."
This version of events was strongly disputed by Neal. He has stated that, although he wrote the program that formed the foundations of SIMS whilst he was working at Lea Manor, the work was undertaken completely in his own time. He added that Bedfordshire authority sold the software on to other councils and it was the revenue from this that was used to develop SIMS further, a process that was fully approved by the district auditor.
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- Dead girl given truancy warning BBC News website, 25 March 2009
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