In conversation with Phil Neal – June 2015

June 2015: SIMS Annual Conference
June 2015: SIMS Annual Conference

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Phil Neal (Capita SIMS Managing Director) very kindly agreed to meet with me to discuss his views on Education, and his products in general. My continued thanks to Olga and Cath at CLPR (www.catherinelane.com) for arranging the meetings.

So – on to the actual discussions! We started off looking at the development of the Azure Hosted platform. You can read more about this solution launch here. This has led to a shift in support from Capita SIMS explained Phil – as this meant they were now supporting 24/7 working. This is a pattern that has grown of late – starting with the Agora payment system launched at BETT in 2013 – and one which will only continue as new products and services are launched.

Not surprisingly, there has been a quick uptake in the hosted solution, Phil told me – and he was understandably proud that the active customer migrations reached the 100 point pretty quickly. There was a spike in demand, to be expected and any launch, but this has continued with interest from Local Authorities and Support Units, many of whom had aging equipment. Not surprising when you consider the cost savings being demanded by Government; and efficiencies being driven for in the current economic climate. Multi Academy Trusts are also very interested Phil continued – which again makes sense as groups of schools come together. You would want your group of Schools to all be on one MIS – and why host it yourself when you have the opportunity to have a clean start.

The release of the Teacher App was the next subject on the agenda, and is a project that I have been very vocal on since the start. The launch of this product set (when we consider the three different Operating System versions), also contributed to the change in dynamics within Capita SIMS. To support the need and desire to be able to develop in a more agile manner – common in the “App” arena – Phil was very proud of his acquisition of experienced staff from companies such as eBay – where running in an always on world is an established trend. There is also familiarity with the variety of interfaces as well as peaks and troughs of demand. The joy of the new development and deployment methods possible with the Apps is that small incremental improvements and features can be pushed out without even the customer being aware. Because of the architecture as well, Phil explained, it has also been possible to invest in and grow the infrastructure – some of this work bringing improvements in speed of 10 times. The goal of the App project was to focus on access and the speed of entry – and Phil believes that the product delivers on this. I would tend to agree – and I have always said that I believe a lot of that stems from taking cues from the underlying Operating System, and taking advantage of the design and display language/gestures available. This keeps it familiar to the users, and will aid adoption. I asked Phil what his thoughts were on the Windows version (incidentally my favourite), being used on more than just tablet devices – for example standard laptops and desktops. His response was that it was never intended to be this way – but that he was also aware that it would perform well and the functionality was still there with mouse control – but came into its own with a touch screen. Based on the ever increasing number of convertible devices, and also laptops with touchscreens – we discussed the idea that unintentionally, the Windows App version could replace SIMS.net in the classroom. This, Phil said was not a problem – the goal has been to get SIMS and its data (whether this be entry or viewing) into the hands of the teacher. It doesn’t matter what form the device or the access to it – the App is certainly achieving its goal for speed of access and entry!

Interestingly, Phil went on to say that Schools need to stop thinking about a brand of device, and more about capability. I think there is a point here – Windows 8 tablets are available for around £100 – and these can run the full office as well as numerous other Apps from the Store. The best to look for are those running full Windows 8.1, or now Windows 10 – to ensure that you can run any native application as well as the Store apps. Speaking of costs, I asked Phil what his thoughts were on the challenges of funding for Schools – and what impact this might have, since there was now a growing range of additional “cost” products for SIMS. He told me that in his view, it is down to Capita prove the cost to benefit. An example of this would be that they need to be saying “look at printing costs – look at the cost of the app – look at how much money you could save”, and the same goes for Sims Learning Gateway (SLG). Speaking of SLG – and its future based on the wider remit of the App project – I asked where SLG was going, and whether it was expected to decline in take-up. Sales are still buoyant in the Independent sector (due to overseas business), where there is a strong push to want to keep their parents involved; so publishing the reports online is a huge help. From customer feedback, “it is informative and colourful and easier to read”. There are opportunities to put competitively priced options out there to help save the schools save money.

June 2015: Shine Awards
June 2015: Shine Awards

Speaking of saving money – Phil and the team at Capita SIMS are continuing to support the Shine Trust, and again this year were awarding substantial sums to innovative projects led my extraordinary teachers around the country. I will follow up on this separately in a later article.

Continuing the theme of challenges, Phil also told me that he thought his biggest challenge was going to be understanding how schools wanted to take assessment forward. Clearly, there was some focus on the successful Primary solution which has been released – but this is only part of the story. Despite many many focus groups and seminars, Secondary schools have been very hard to fathom according to Phil. Each secondary school wants something else which is making it difficult. That being said, Phil and Rachael are hoping to have something to comprehensively cover the Secondary sector within 6 months. The plan is for KS3 to be included later this year. Underneath – there is a very human and real story of the effect of the levels changes. A lot of schools are devising their own assessment solutions and are calling consultants in to help with the use of the software and customising it to their own school. Educators in the classroom, who have had standards and systems to follow suddenly have nothing. Phil likened the removing levels and introducing the new curriculum to having the rug taken away from under their feet. In fact, as the conversation continued, we discussed what would or could have happened if Capita hadn’t developed the systems and support they had. He told me that it was his belief that if they hadn’t got assessment right there wouldn’t have been an MIS, and would have lost a lot of customers.

Since we had been talking of Government and policy – we moved on to where we thought the next changes would come from, and what the impact would be. Following on from the keynote – we both agreed that Government has the responsibility to make sure that there are enough good teachers. Furthermore, despite all the fear around the future of Local Authorities a few years ago, actually – they should be helping Academies to better themselves even though they are not maintained schools. The good thing is that some schools are beginning to realise that it is their responsibility to make changes within their school, to better the education of the pupils/students. It is also becoming clear that learning is about communication with pupils/students not technology. Interestingly, if you can prove that you are taking a more balanced view of a pupil/student parents will be more likely to gain interest. Put that up against a crazy recent quote that some Ministers have been heard saying that it is the MIS system providers that are data hungry, which is causing the school issues. A response from the audience at the event where this quote came from was “If the MIS’s are, then the DfE are the dealer”. A valid point with the central data collection and census I think most would agree.

June 2015: SIMS Annual Conference
June 2015: SIMS Annual Conference

We concluded where you would expect I suppose, with a little future blue sky thinking, and more concrete expectations and plans for the next 12 months. Graham and Phil have traditionally discusses this each year – this year was no different. The interesting dynamic was Graham as “host” questioning Phil on stage. Many know that at some point there will be a new version of SIMS; but what might surprise is that the next version of SIMS is no longer about getting into the cloud. Originally SIMS 8 was being designed to compete with other cloud based offerings. This focus has now changed due to the development and release of the Azure solution, allowing hosting of SIMS 7. Azure has allowed a more cost effective solution, and extended the life of SIMS 7 – there is no need to rush a replacement. What is clear is that Capita are keen to learn lessons from other rapid entries into the Cloud MIS market. The new focus is to make SIMS accessible, and to get schools using the software to its full potential. The one thing Capita have been pushing over the recent years is getting SIMS into the classroom. This tidily brings us full circle, back to what Phil believes is the most significant achievement of the year – the Teacher App. The App is getting the power of SIMS into a digestible format – and Phil continued that he thought the challenge will be how much data a classroom teacher can or is able to enter.

Currently, there are over 300 schools using the solution, which Phil was quite pleased with – but went on to sat it wasn’t as high as it could be. They are getting more enquiries for the app than they have for any other addition to the software, at a rate on around 1000 per month! Phil also told me that the teacher app was also designed to make sure that some of the “prettier” apps didn’t cause schools to leave SIMS. These may be prettier, but doesn’t have the same depth of information included. Some schools don’t see any difference as they do not know the depth that SIMS 7 actually has as they aren’t using it to the full potential. This is why the Consultancy teams are busier than ever to try and spread the value proposition of the features of SIMS. A lot of time and effort is also being put into documentation and video walkthroughs to try and showcase areas of the software.

At its heart, this all goes have to the reality that acting on data is key. Recording needs to be dealt with straight away in order to speed up responses. The most vulnerable area is where teachers are pushed forward time, so it is key make sure the product is easy to use Phil told me. The investment in the user interface team continues – and all new developments and enhancements have this as part of their goals. It should be an interesting 12 months ahead…Summer will be around again before we know it – and it will be time to review progress all over again!

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