Co-founder of Plus4Group Teresa Ward talks about the challenges and pitfalls of signing up to a new school information system. Make the right choice and you'll be a hero, but finding the ideal school information system for your school takes more than guess work and can result in lots of stress for the unprepared.
Here you'll find a selection of tools that help you make an informed decision.
While this may sound obvious, it's a good idea to set down a list of problems that you want to solve before you start looking at brochures and product feature lists. Order them into 'essential', 'time saving' and 'nice to have'. That way you can focus on the real problems and you won't get seduced in to playing "MIS Top Trumps", making the assumption that more features are bound to cover all your needs. There's a lot of truth in the old adage "A jack of all trades is a master of none".
The choice of credible solutions to school admin problems has never been greater, so why is this?
The very fact that brand new systems have been developed in the past 3-4 years certainly indicates that the established names don't have everything right. A long client list may just be an indication that the company has been around a long time.
Now is the time to reach for a checklist of features and put competing systems to the test.
Every new system will involve some change to the way things are done. After all, if nothing changed, nothing would be gained.
Unfortunately it's very common for users to imagine a new system works in a particular way, (sometimes encouraged by overly keen sales teams), only to find they're unprepared for the chaos and upheaval of discovering that it works completely differently in practice. That's one reason why I believe it's very important to try things out and meet with the team that will make the new system work for your school before you commit.
In the good old days it was relatively straightforward to compare one system with another because the hardware arrived in a box, the software on a disc and the support engineer in a van. Once the system was handed over, it was up to you to make it work for you and pay IT staff or the supplier to sort out all the things you hadn't thought of.
With the now ubiquitous availability of the internet, not only do teachers and parents expect to be able to access data off-site at home, but in general the number of system users whoes needs have to be considered has grown. This presents new challenges to make sure everyone has the right information at the right time, that is stored safely and securely.
A new breed of internet based solutions if engineered well can provide the same level of security, access and reliability as internet banks, but do check this carefully as many lightweight systems may look good, but lack the levels of security that many tech savvy parents will notice straightaway.
Take care also to compare like with like. Plus4Schools for example combines software with a very high level of personal support geared to helping you achieve your objectives of running a successful school.
Take a look at our quick evaluation checklist tool to explore these points further
Diligent buyers pay a lot of attention to how the supplier operates its support operation.
Every teacher will testify that schemes of work, pastoral care requirements and parental expectations are constantly evolving, so whatever school management system you implement will need to adapt over time. You'll definitely need your suppliers help to keep your sanity and avoid spending lots of your own personal time navigating an unfamiliar system at first, then tuning it up once you understand its capabilities. That means it's important that you have direct access to people who can answer your questions and solve your problems in a timely way.
Some suppliers cope better with this than others, but all too frequently, they try to control demand for expensive-to-provide support resources.
Shielding those that can really help by forcing you to submit questions via a ticketing system, using first-line call handlers with limited knowledge or simply restricting their hours of operation so that your ability to speak to them (often in between your own teaching commitments) is very limited. This latter point can be particularly frustrating, because the oportunities when you're free are going to be similar for every other school too.
Free, easy and timely access to those who take the time to understand your needs and can readily answer your questions should not be underestimated - something to check carefully. We place a very high importance on this with Plus4Schools for these very reasons and have successfully retained customers for a long time without the handcuffs of long contract periods to prevent them leaving.
For an insight in to what a company is really like, take a look at what its employees say on sites like Glassdoor. It's surprising how much you can learn about an organisations culture and working practices in a few clicks!
I'm often asked why school management systems appear so expensive compared with online services like Office 365 or even most of Google that's free at the point of use?
Doing support well is a big part of the answer, as I mention above.
Also don't forget that a school MIS is a specialist tool designed to accomplish many school specific tasks - often in a particular way that's evolved in your school - rather than a general purpose tool that does a single job. The opportunity for development costs to be spread across millions of users or offseting cost through selling advertising simply doesn't exist.
Another way to look at cost is that at school management system is a professional tool of your job. In much the same way as any other trade, the job is safer, easier and more efficient with the proper set of tools, so cutting corners or simply going for what looks like the cheapest solution, is often false economy. Think value, not cost.
That said, a well impemented - and supported - system can save a lot of time by avoiding duplicated information gathering and processing. Appropriately sharing information across leadership, teachers and administrators helps everyone to make better decisions about teaching at every level, which equates to cost saved by freeing time for tasks that would otherwise need more people to complete.
So you think you've found the solution that on paper solves your problems. You've even seen a working demo running on a salesman's laptop, showed your colleagues and all seemed fine. Your personal judgment/reputation now has maximum exposure.
At this stage you probably don't fully appreciate what it will take to actually implement most solutions you might choose:-
With conventional software+hardware solutions and tight budgets, it's always tempting to cut back on paid-for installation, configuration, project management and training days. Don't underestimate how long it will take for you as a novice to learn the deep configurations of a brand new system!
However, you can mitigate this major cost/time risk by choosing a payment-by-results or service based solution like Plus! for Schools where everything is included. Your chosen provider then has every incentive to make it work for you.
Take particular notice of supplier lock-in and minimum term contracts. Some suppliers will try to impose minimum 3 year or even 5 year initial term contracts, meaning that if you find out for any reason that you've made the wrong choice for your school, it becomes a very expensive mistake to rectify as the school will be obliged to pay all the fees outstanding until the end of the contract period, whether you use the system or not. Whilst long initial periods used to have some justification to spread one-off initial setup costs, that's increasingly difficult to defend where setup and training costs are itemised and deployment takes only minutes with online systems. If the initial commitment is longer than 12 months, ask yourself why the supplier has so little confidence that you'll want to stay.
Now go back to your problem list and make sure you agree the key items that must be satisfied before you will sign off the project.
Make sure you ask searching questions about such things as how many users can connect to the system at a time before it slows down noticably (particularly for parent portals and home working, where school based systems will really struggle to keep up). The last thing you want is to roll out a new system to parents that can't cope.
For more on this, take a look at our technology comparison tool to see how different solutions measure up to modern day requirements.
If you've chosen well, your investment in a new information system can make you a hero for saving everyone lots of time and effort, as well as really making your school stand out from the crowd.
That reassures parents that they've made a good choice in selecting your forward thinking school!