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 ( 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.

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SIMS Annual Conference Keynote 2015

CIRWExeWcAACGubThe Capita SIMS annual conference opened with a change this year – gone was the “external host”; and instead we had a welcome return for Graham Cooper – Head of Product Strategy. Grahams opening had one key message – “where SIMS is used well in schools, it has the power to make a difference to children’s’ future”. Fitting, in a time where there is so much focus on the complete journey of a child.

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Taking stock of 2014/15 – and glimpsing the future with Capita SIMS

CIVbvNYWwAAXp8PAs is traditional at the SIMS Annual Conference, which took place in June at Alton Towers, Phil Neal (Managing Director of Capita SIMS) took to the stage to review the previous year – and give some insight into the company targets and highlights in the forthcoming year. This, I was able to follow-up with Phil later – as he kindly agreed to speak to me further to elaborate on some of the ideas for the future; and his own personal highlights and opinions on the sector and Education. That article will follow soon – but for now, on with an overview of what has happened and the road ahead…


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UPDATED: SIMS Teacher App – hands on and reviewed…

Many of you may have read my previous articles about the then forthcoming SIMS Teacher App for iOS; well now i’ve been able to get very hands on…literally, with the most recent release – and the one which is now available to all schools. Tablet computers are becoming an increasing part of the modern classroom, expanding SIMS in true tablet App form (beyond the already discussed Remote App) means that, some would say, SIMS is becoming modern.

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Agora – the “new breed” of SIMS

Agora, launched a little over a year ago, is the Capita SIMS online payment solution for Schools – enabling parents to pay for school meals, trips, activities, uniforms and more. SIMS Agora allows Schools to provide a safe and secure method to make payments in a convenient way – always having access to what they have paid for whenever and wherever they like.

What really sets Agora apart from other the rest of the SIMS ecosystem is that it is the first “as a service” solution from Capita. There is no “product” in the traditional sense to buy – no “disks”, no installation or consultancy charges and no pesky system requirements.#

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Plymouth Education IT Event

On Wednesday 11th July, I was pleased to be able to welcome collegues from the Plymouth area to a “pilot” meeting – where we could discuss and collaborate on the various challenges we faced. We were also fortunate to be joined by a number of industry specialists to offer their advice and details of emerging trends.

The event started with Paul Harris, from the Micrsosoft Schools Business Team. Paul opened with the advert for Microsoft Surface – and that is the new Microsoft Surface, the tablet/slate; not the table which used to have the same product name. The original “Surface” is now called PixelSense.

The video – and the new site – can be found here

The stirring introduction over, we moved into the Microsoft Lync managed presentation and demo – sadly Paul couldn’t join us in person. Paul talked about the forthcoming Windows 8 release – and announced the RTM in August; for Software Assurance customers this would be available nearly instantly. We were shown how Windows 8 was designed to bridge the gap between the personal device and the corporate device – one environment on both, which was everything you needed at the time. Office 365 for Education now being free was another big announcement which was discussed – and how it can encourage collaboration and efficiency. The slide deck for the presentation can be viewed here:

Next up was Chris Lim from Trustmarque Solutions – the first of two “industry insight” sessions from them. Chris presented about Processes and Procedures for the Success of IT Support. ITIL is the framework used in industry, the education sector has its own implementation of this – FITS. The slide deck can be viewed here: Attachment 14898

A break followed, then we moved into a brief discussion and presentation from yours truly about recent partnership work with Microsoft. As many have noticed, there has been a blog series on the Microsoft Schools Blog about systems implementation and change – IT Systems for the Future. The platform – HyperV; and the management system – SCCM, were both shown – and the fact that this was only part of the story when we want to talk integration. Bringing the FITS processes in, designed to bring structure; I overviewed how theses “landed” in real life. If anyone would like any further information about this; or would like a site visit – please let me know.

With all the recent talk of Academies – Terry Watts (scomis), updated us about recent changes to their support model for Schools. SIMS changes, service updates and performance were all on the agenda! A brand new training suite was also opened at their offices in Exeter two days later, where further evidence of their growing partnerships with industry players was clear.

Lunch followed, where there was plenty of opportunity to catch up with colleagues and the presentation team. There certainly seemed to be lots of collaboration and networking going on, new and long standing colleagues alike.

Sean from Smoothwall joined us to talk us though how the “Bring your own” (BYOD) agenda can be safely implemented with your systems to ensure esafety. We were shown details of the product range in brief, but the discussion centred more around the concepts of safe internet access – and the perennial filtering argument. Their slide deck can be viewed here: [Coming Soon]

Also involed were the team from Overland Storage. The change in the curriculum is having a significant impact on all our systems – with ever increasing demands on space. Digital media is becoming the defacto standard for curriculum delivery, and it is well recognised that the most inspiring content is audio and video. Overland discussed how they have seen industry deal with the same challenges – which can be equated to the increasing training and supporting literature demands. Further to this, there is then the challege of security of this data, ie backing it up. A pilot project is expected to start over the coming months with Schools backing up to eachother. A slide deck provided by the team can be viewed here: The Storage Conundrum – Plymouth IT Mgrs.pptx

Another break – and then it was back to TrustMarque for their second presentation of the day. This time, it was centred on Licensing – and how to get the most from it. Most are familiar with EES, and the benefits it has had for the UK market. Often misunderstood – Fiona talked to us about the product set available, and the ways to ensure best value. We then moved on to Adobe – and I was thrilled that Fiona was able to announce a new “EES like” model is being developed by them for the Creative Suite. This has the potential to save schools thousands – and it wont just be limited to single Schools. Confederations will be supported so long as there are “defined links” between establishments. More information will follow on this as soon as it is available from Adobe UK. For now – Fiona’s deck is available here: Attachment 14897

Lastly, it was over to Simon from Ruckus. Wireless has always been a contentious issue in Schools, ever since it was put out there as “the solution” by the media. In dense high use areas, Schools just havent been able to take advantage of it – with staff complaining of poor coverage, speed etc. Simon talked to us about what makes Ruckus different – based on its use in industry. He talked about the technology, not the product – and why wireless systems traditionally don’t work well. We were also shown the future. His slide deck will be added shortly.

I would like to thank all the Schools who gave their time to join us for what I hope was an enjoyable and informative day. Thanks must also go to all the Suppliers and Manufacturers who supported the event. Finally, a big thanks to Paul Harris from Microsoft for the Keynote; as well as the unseen names and assistants in setting the call up – Tim Bush and Mark Reynolds.


Paul Harris
Consultant Internal Schools Business Manager to Microsoft Ltd
0118 909 4437

Chris Lim
Solution Manager – Microsoft & Integrated Solutions – TrustMarque Solutions

Terry Watts
Engineer – scomis
01392 385300

Neil Cogger
Pre-Sales Manager – Overland Storage
0118 989 8027

Sean Lazenby
Education Sales Manager – Smoothwall Ltd
0113 3874 183

Fiona Gemmell
Education Specialist – TrustMarque Solutions
01904 561 663

Simon Hollister
Ruckus EMEA

This post continues from my last – discussing the themes and news from the Capita LA Conference. I know this will come as a surprise to some, who will have been expecting more “geeky” System Centre or HyperV stuff – but my community work will also form my blogs too!

The Key Note speech at the event was made by Tony Travers. Tony Travers is Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a research centre at the London School of Economics. He is also a Visiting Professor in the LSE’s Government Department; whos research interests include local and regional government and public service reform. He is currently an advisor to the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. He has published a number of books on cities and government, including Failure in British Government, The Politics of the Poll Tax (with David Butler and Andrew Adonis), Paying for Health, Education and Housing: How does the Centre Pull the Purse Strings (with Howard Glennerster and John Hills) and The Politics of London: Governing the Ungovernable City.

Here though – he talked to us about the way in which management and support of Schools has changed.

Looking back, Schools started and were maintained locally by bodies often formed by churches. After 1945 onwards, e state stepped in, with LEAs. Were schools then a local service or a national service, really a mix of the two.

From 1976 onwards, there was greater Government involvement – increasing to the general “tinkering” which every successive power has felt the need to do.

The national curriculum was introduced, followed by endless fiddling with curriculums and exams – which continues to this day. You only have to look at the news lately to see a new ICT Curriculum (now this one I do agree with); changes to the GCSE system, changes to numeracy and literacy expectations from Primary and more.

All of this “tinkering” has had a purpose though. The new models have been designed to drive improvement, but how much of is a remodelling of the past, academies and free schools are similar to and an evolution of the old grant maintained schools. We now have a mixture of types of school, giving choice to parents. League tables and inspections allow that to be an informed choice, and to enforce performance. The pupil premium drives improvement by competition between schools. More students equals greater funding. Has this led to a reduced role for local government?

What is the role?

Admissions, centrally provided services and ensuring capital investment by ensuring places are available.

Little power to close failing academies, or plan the system of local schools. Loss of fiscal power too.

However, the growth area has been that Councils can also provide ancillary services… Free School Meals, insurance, supply, under achieving pupils, insurance, information services, economies of scale services are just some examples of this.

The long and short of it is that LAs have moved from being providers and controllers, to more limited role. Instead, new and strengthened central bodies from Whitehall – Ofsted, Education Funding Agency, DfE.

So, what does the future hold, and what issues could it present?

The economy is the obvious first point. The constant drive to cut costs brings the challenge of weak growth and likelyhood of school funding being held at below inflation levels. There is bound to be the continuation of new policies – the move to introduce more Academies and the growth of Free Schools. Only in the news in the past few weeks were the announcements to push failing Primaries into Academy Status. To gain a perceived better control of costs, there is also likely to be a further centralisation of funding.

Where does all of this leave LAs? It all looks bleak for them, indeed many thought the LA IT role would all but disappear. Instead, a new LA role has grown – to be the invisible guiding role. There to be supporting, able to give guidance; and taking an active interest locally – which central powers cannot do.

They are also in a position to be delivering value for money though economies of scale projects and services – on a local level, coordinating the needs of their cluster. Despite the fears to the contrary, they are plenty of examples where LAs continue handling finance for central capital projects as well.

Why does the role of the LA matter anyway – and what could explain this “phoenix from the flames”?

  • Greater trust of local councillors rather than MPs
  • Balanced local ear to the ground abilities
  • Emergency support via local secured and invested funds
  • Responsibility for other key services such as social care, public health, planning, crime and disorder

And why is this important? Well these relate to education because of the wider impact of the environment out children grow up in. They change the way people feel – change their perception and confidence in a way that Central Government cannot achieve.

So, in conclusion – although there has been a move away from Local Government responsibility over the last 50 years, there is still a major role for it.

Still a need for the efficiency and scale that Local Government has, despite the press coverage. It is a surprising statistic some may say, but Local Government is more efficient than Central and any small organisation (such as a school on its own).

Capita LA Conference 2012 – Alton Towers – The Year in Review

A departure from some of my more recent posts about System Centre – now time to concentrate on more of the Consultancy and Technology Evangelism Im also involved with.

This time, I was very fortunate to be invited to the Capita SIMS LA Conference, held at Alton Towers. Thanks must go to Cath Lane and her team, as well as Phil Neal and the Product Managers who spared their time to talk to me. This is the first of a selection of posts which will appear this week discussing the themes of the event.

So, on to the actual event, which centred around the way in which the Schools ecosystem is changing. Even Capita (who I know some of my audience will suggest otherwise) appreciate the need to better understand the market – and what we need. IT as a technology, as a platform for use in Schools is changing. Schools are very data rich – but often are not in a position to understand, filter or use this data properly. This is where SIMS, and other Capita products and services come in.

Phil Neal spoke on stage about the demanding competitive landscape which exists, both in terms of product and also the ancilliary services such as LA support services. Again – I know some of my audience wont believe that the MIS market place could be seen as competitive, but the simple truth is it is. The Academy system has changed the ecosystem – Schools and Colleges have a choice.

There are more developers and products on the market, and there is a greater awareness of them. I think a lot of this has to do with the changing professionals in Schools, and groups such as Edugeek.

There are more decision makers – no longer is it an LA decision which MIS, or other systems a School uses. Schools in isolation are making this decision, although – that being said – there are also Federations of Schools choosing a product or service. Software and support providers are having to change the way they market themselves and their products – to make themselves understood to a different audience.

The move to the cloud also is having an impact. Product launches such as the competitive Serco Progresso raise the conversation “is there going to be a Cloud SIMS”.

Despite the bleak outlook when the Academy system started, Capita have been making gains in 2011/12 of roughly 50 schools. They also won Norfolk LA, and that is despite the concern of LAs “loosing control” of their Schools.

The change to Academies has brought on its challenges. Academies have to go to market to asses what is available to choose what is needed for them. Converted academies are doing well, sponsored academies less so – as they tend to be groups or adopt whatever the sponsor is using.

LA tenders are progressing, and there have been gains such as the Norfolk LA gain earlier. The new DfE framework brings its own challenges, the problem is that the tender can be all about the terms and conditions rather than the functionality and software. This is where the definition of core and non core models is important. The staggering truth there is that according to the framework, Exams and Upgrades are not part of the core, while cashless management is. Go figure?! So, in short, if you are a School or LA tendering – make sure you check carefully what components you want/expect to be included in your costs, or you risk getting stung! After the demise of BECTA, some may see it as no surprise that there is also no mention of parental engagement. If you are a School or LA who has rolled this out already, or has plans to do so (bear in mind that this is still part of Ofsted monitoring and evaluation) – you need to check carefully that you include this too.

Capita have understood one clear thing from the community – and that is the quality of their communications with people on the ground. Their surveys of the user group showed some interesting results. Quality of training materials and Uptake of SIMS in the Classroom – key drivers were varied. There is going to be a lot of work taking place to improve this soon. There has been limited takeup Discover and Solus 3 – but those where it has been implemented, it has taken off. Discover is changing the market place. Whole industry around developing aspects for Discover.

Also questioned was whether support to schools was direct or via LA.

So – what is changing soon?

Learning Gateway is due to have extensive developments, and now has a new Product Manager. The first big change is to add data collection sheets. The second will be a complete re-write of the “person webpart” – which is responsible for the old style Student and Staff details pages.

T4 is dead as a product. T6 now has all the functionality, and the Timetable printing functionality is all embedded in the main product. Finally, you can say goodbye to this relic of SIMS.

FMS has document management and cost centre manager permissions. Auditing reports and specific reports for Academies is also now included. This was one of the big criticisms of the product. Finally – and Phil was very proud to announce this – FMS is now Financial Authority Accredited.

In Touch is being revitalised as a product. There seems to be limited awareness of this nationwide. I guess, in part, this is due to the plethora of competitive products such as Groupcall, Teachers2Parents etc. However, ask youself this, why use these if the functionality can be “there” in SIMS. Anyway – coming soon to it are improved alerting and automated notifications.

And finally from Phil’s stage section was another bit of pride for more awards – Finalist for BETT 2012 and Winner of ERA for innovation. Not bad for a years work!