Wednesday, 21 December 2022

MIS MARKET MOVES WINTER 2022: What Did The SIMS Spreadsheet Say?

Disclaimer: I have past and present commercial relationships with many MIS vendors, including an ongoing involvement with Compass. I'm also a co-founder of two assessment startups - Smartgrade and Carousel - that exist in markets adjacent to the MIS. Nonetheless I aim to write this blog impartially, from the perspective of a neutral observer. This matters to me - it's basically the blog I wish had existed back when I was a MAT senior leader trying to get a handle on MIS and edtech. I also now provide MIS market datasets and reports as a service and offer free, informal consultations on MIS procurement to schools and MATs. If you would like to discuss any of this, contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

As a startup founder, here's the rough model I use for how to build a successful business:

  1. Build an innovative minimum viable product.
  2. Listen to your customers and their suggestions for how to make your good idea into a truly great product.
  3. Market your company in a way that is warm and appealing to your customers and partners.
  4. Find the optimal price that allows you to become profitable while also offering great value to your customers.
But it's not the only way! In fact it's not even necessarily the *right* way to run a well-established business, at least from a "maximising shareholder value" perspective. So established companies sometimes adopt very different strategies from startups. Those methodologies may look a bit weird and unfriendly from the outside, but that doesn't mean they're wrong in terms of profit maximisation. For example, the owners of 118118 had declining turnover every year in the decade to 2018; but still made a £2.4m profit and withdrew a £64m dividend that year. So sometimes the best way to run a company (from the perspective of shareholders) is to find ways to limit the decline and maximise revenue from the customers that remain. That may not look cuddly to customers, but it might work out just fine financially.

So there was a world where I could be writing this blog and reporting on SIMS declines after a year of contract tussles and CMA investigations, and the headline could still be "SIMS will probably be happy with that". My guess is that SIMS has a spreadsheet that was crafted sometime in 2021, and that spreadsheet predicts declines in their market share, while also setting a range for those declines which would be considered acceptable. So to evaluate the past year for SIMS, what we're really trying to do is guess what level of churn they could live with.

Well, I imagine it was lower than this:

To summarise, over the past year SIMS lost 18% of their market share. 2,734 English state schools took a look at what SIMS was offering and decided to move elsewhere. To put that in context, almost 3 times as many schools left SIMS over the past year compared to the previous 12 months (2022: 2,734; 2021: 942). 

The above chart also shows the churn rates for the leading challengers. Both Arbor and Bromcom have churned at under 3% for the past 4 years now, and Arbor has been at under 1% for the past 3 years. 

So does this mean SIMS are toast? Well, not necessarily. If you're SIMS you're really hoping that the three year contracts you've enforced mean that at least the the exodus stops now. You're also keeping your fingers crossed that customers will like your new "Next Gen" product once they see it. And you're no doubt cooking up other strategies to keep customers with you.

So in some senses the MIS market data for the next year tells an even more important than this batch of data from the past year. 2022 was about seeing how big the decline was; but we've known for some time that a decline was inevitable. The big question now is: can SIMS stop the bleeding and return to a relatively stable market share? Come back next Christmas to find out!

Anyway, SIMS aren't the only story in town, so let's move on to the full market picture. Here are my usual charts showing the latest MIS market share of English state schools.
And here are my key takeaways:
  1. RM gave me a new story to tell! Last time out I joked that the RM story always seems to be the same: "they didn't lose that many schools, but they didn't really win anything either". Well, they sure did call my bluff, because while their market share is almost unchanged, they recently dropped the bombshell that Integris is being acquired by The Key. So in other words, RM somehow managed to both trot out exactly the same story and change the narrative at the same time. It's a bit like when Eminem covered that Dido song and the chorus was the same but suddenly there's a thrilling new meaning to everything.
  2. Ian Armitage take a bow. The most important person you might never have heard of in MIS-land is Ian Armitage, shareholder and Chairman at The Key. Having first bought ScholarPack in 2018, and then Arbor in 2020, The Key has now announced its intention to acquire the division of RM that includes Integris. Once the deal goes through The Key will have 7,189 schools in their portfolio - a 33% market share. Looking at academies specifically, The Key have a 38% market share vs 45% for SIMS. To build a portfolio like this takes a really long-term investor horizon and some smart manoeuvring. So hats off to Ian and all those who made this happen. Of course, what they do with Integris post-acquisition is another question altogether: will they move the schools to the Arbor platform, or keep them on Integris over the long term as they've (mostly) done with ScholarPack? That's another one I'll look forward to digging into next year.
  3. Arbor are the winningest MIS. It feels a bit mean of me to bury the lede that Arbor climbed to a 16% market share after gaining 1,887 schools over the past year, but hey, there's been a lot of other stuff to talk about! Anyway, that's over double their share from a year ago. Their position as the leading challenger to SIMS is cemented. 
  4. Bromcom also had a strong year. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Bromcom had a banner year too. They also nearly doubled their number of schools (2022: 1,688 schools; 2021: 885), and their market share measured by pupils is up to 10%. Of the other vendors, only Arbor and SIMS are in double figures. 
  5. Ed:Gen were the next fastest grower. IRIS products (Ed:Gen and iSAMS combined) jumped from 18 to 86 schools over the past 12 months a net gain of 68. This compares with a net increase of 36 for Juniper products (Pupil Asset and Horizons combined). So technically that makes them the fastest growing MIS (though I appreciate that's a bit like saying "standup paddleboarding is the fastest growing sport in the country"; it may be true in percentage terms, but that doesn't mean it's replacing football in the national pscyche just yet...) But in all seriousness, that's significant growth, and IRIS are entitled to give themselves a pat on the back.  
  6. Oh, hello, Compass! If you read the disclaimer at the top you'll know I'm an advisor to Compass, so I take particular pleasure in welcoming a major new player to the English school market! Compass is an Australian company with 2,000+ schools in Australia, Ireland and now England too, serving all phases and types of school. Now they're on the board, it'll be fun to track how they grow in the coming year.
  7. If you're buying SIMS, expect to receive a very personalised sales service. Over the past year SIMS won 23 schools. I checked on LinkedIn and found 26 people with the words "Sales" or "Business Development" in the job title at ESS. Now of course some of them may have left and not updated LinkedIn, and I'm sure others work across customer success / operations / international markets etc... but still, if you're a new SIMS customer you can assume you'll have a very attentive salesperson looking after you. 
  8. The switch from ScholarPack to Arbor has started. One thing I've been keeping tabs on is whether The Key move schools from ScholarPack to Arbor now they own both. The answer until now has mostly been no, but this past year there are signs that a switch has started. In total 43 schools left ScholarPack, of which 34 went to Arbor. 
  9. Others are coming. Satchel recently announced that they're building an MIS. ET-AIMS and Go4Schools are either in the MIS market or looking to enter (I assume ET-AIMS has some independent schools; I'm not sure if anyone is live with Go4Schools yet). So it's fair to say that we can expect further new entrants over the coming years. 

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Free Oak National!

To date I’ve been broadly pro-Oak. But I can see why some people don’t feel that way, and I sympathise. 

The case against it - particularly in its new life as an Arm’s Length body of the Department for Education - is easy enough to understand. People worry about scope creep. The expanded Oak could undermine the businesses of existing publishers; so if I was in that segment I guess I might have concerns too. I also think it’s reasonable for people to worry that, while Oak says now it will be independent and optional, its mere existence and close relationship with government means that these freedoms may not always be guaranteed.

But in the most general sense, I remain a fan. I think additional help for teachers in planning and offering lessons is A Good Thing. I also don’t object philosophically to the government inserting themselves into a commercial market. As an edtech vendor (I’m a co-founder of Smartgrade and Carousel), I do not expect or want all educational products and services to be provided by the private sector only. It is good and healthy that commercial outfits compete with non-profits, MATs, schools and, in some circumstances, government directly. Indeed, when it comes to curriculum resources specifically, plenty of the innovation of the past few years has emanated from excellent non-commercial organisations like White Rose Maths, NRICH, Primary Knowledge Curriculum, Ark Curriculum Plus and CUSP

So what I’m basically saying is that a debate about Oak is healthy. To get the best Oak possible we need to put aside dogma and engage with how to make Oak work well for everyone. And by everyone I mean schools, teachers, students, parents, curriculum providers and edtech vendors.

And in terms of that final constituency, I’m increasingly concerned that a huge opportunity will be missed in how Oak is proposing to operate. I’ve just read through the Oak Market Engagement slides and what they say is this:

Full Curriculum Packages will be shared on a Creative Commons licence (excluding third party copyrighted content within a lesson, such as works of art or literature).


Any existing curriculum and/or resources owned by the Supplier (Supplier IP) that is used in the development of the Full Curriculum Packages for the purposes of the Contract remain the property of the Supplier. The Supplier retains the right to commercial and other usage of those existing resources.

The use of Creative Commons is welcome - it means that teachers can download, remix and share resources without fear of breaching copyright. 

But what’s missing is that as things stand, the license seemingly does not allow for commercial use by third parties other than the organisation that created the content in the first place.

Why is that an issue? Well, an important thing to understand about edtech is that vendors selling educational resources have to do two things: create great resources and build high quality technology. They’re both really hard and very difficult tasks! So what happens in practice is that either:

  • Vendors have a vision for innovative technology, and so either outsource content creation to users, or design mediocre content.

  • Vendors have a vision for great content, but they’re not natural technologists, so their tech platforms are often a bit ropey.

Now, one quite surprising thing about Oak, given the speed at which it came about, is that it did a really good job of building nice tech as well as creating lessons. But, I think even they would acknowledge that a reason for this is that they kept their tech ambitions limited: they’re a lesson delivery platform, not a full learning platform. So they host videos and pdfs and basic quizzes and such, and they let users access those things very rapidly. However, they’ve been careful not to allow their technology brief to get too broad, and I’m not sure we should want or expect them to do more than make great resources easily accessible online.

We already know that one supplier isn’t going to win the right to create all Oak content - they have announced a cap of four lots in every procurement cycle explicitly to prevent this. So I worry that we could end up with free Oak resources on the simple-but-very-usable Oak site, and then bits and bobs of commercial reuse from the content creators only in their own closed ecosystems.

Instead, what I’d love to see is that Oak resources become available to all, including any edtech vendor, so that innovators can use this valuable content in their products. If that happens I would expect that vendors would:

  • Enhance Oak’s assessment capabilities. Right now Oak contains simple multiple choice quizzes. That’s fine as a starter, but it’s only a small part of the school assessment picture. Innovators would be able to make Oak’s quizzes available in other formats (e.g. free text quizzes); write new (and quite possibly better) questions; and innovate with other assessment approaches (e.g. retrieval practice or end of year assessments). Oak can’t possibly do all that, but the sector can, and teaching would be better for it.

  • Embed Oak lesson content in their learning platforms, allowing that content to be integrated into the software that schools are already using. That’s surely what customers want, and Oak should make it possible.

  • Apply new technologies such as AI (don’t laugh, I’m sceptical about lots of AI too) to the content. I think there’s great potential here in terms of content and assessment sequencing. For example, I was intrigued by the recent Microsoft/Eedi blog on using AI for next best question models

  • Allow teachers to remix and share Oak content. Lesson content doesn’t want to be static. Great teachers take existing resources and adapt them for their particular contents and pedagogies. The right technology would help inspired teachers share enhanced resources with their peers.

And honestly, I’m not sure I even understand the reason why the government wouldn’t do this. (I can imagine reasons some suppliers wouldn’t want this, but if that’s the case then they’re best placed to explain why, and I’ll look forward to hearing their views!) The DfE will pay out £8m to curriculum providers in the first round of procurement alone. They get to set the rules of the tender process. Surely they should want content provided in a way that allows for the maximum impact? They’re paying for it with all of our taxes; so why put limits on how the IP will be used?

More broadly, Oak hasn’t always had an easy time engaging with education suppliers. I’m sure some people will always be against them, but here they have an opportunity not just to win over a chunk of the sector, but more importantly to harness the amazing UK edtech sector’s ingenuity and ambition. Just imagine what companies like Twinkl, Sparx, Century, Google, Microsoft, Firefly, Quizlet - and of course let’s not forget Carousel and Smartgrade! - could do if they were at liberty to incorporate Oak resources into their offer however they wished. 

If we leave Oak content locked behind a non-commercial Creative Commons library the edtech sector will never get to interact with it, and it’s content will be much the poorer for it. 

Free Oak National!

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

MIS MARKET MOVES SUMMER 2022: SIMS lose 1,471 schools in a term

Disclaimer: I have past and present commercial relationships with many MIS vendors, including an ongoing involvement with Compass, an Australia-based MIS that is launching in the UK. I'm also a co-founder of two assessment startups - Smartgrade and Carousel - that exist in markets adjacent to the MIS. Nonetheless I aim to write this blog impartially, from the perspective of a neutral observer. This matters to me - it's basically the blog I wish had existed back when I was a MAT senior leader trying to get a handle on MIS and edtech. I also now provide MIS market datasets and reports as a service and offer free, informal consultations on MIS procurement to schools and MATs. If you would like to discuss any of this, contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

After buying SIMS in the summer of 2021, new owners ParentPay had some big calls to make. With customers moving to competitors at an increasingly rapid rate, they had to make both technical and commercial decisions: 

  1. Technically, should they persist with SIMS Primary, the pre-existing cloud initiative, or ditch it and build something new from scratch? 
  2. Commercially, how should they present to the market? A charm offensive, perhaps, or discounted pricing to keep schools onside? Or could they find a way to somehow keep schools and raise prices?

Well, as we now know, SIMS chose to: 

I don't want to get into the ethics of such an approach in this blog, but I do want to reflect on what you might have hoped for if you were the management team behind such a move? SIMS had lost 6% of its schools over the previous year, and so you'd surely be bracing yourselves for an increase on that. It follows that you'd probably bite someone's hand off for 7% churn in the following year? Maybe you'd even take 10% if you felt what you gained in return was valuable enough? 

Well, we now have data covering English state schools over the crucial period up to May 2022, and we can see that this is what they got:

What you're looking at in the first tab of that viz is SIMS's annualised churn (the number of schools leaving in the past 12 months as a percentage of total customer base a year ago), recalculated each term. And what jumps out is that between January 2022 and May 2022, churn more than doubled (to 13% from 6%). That equates to a loss of 1,471 schools over the term, and 2,024 schools over the past year. The only other major MIS in recent times to churn at that level is Advanced Learning, and they've dropped from around 1,300 schools a decade ago to under 200 schools today. The leading cloud vendors, in contrast, all churn around 1% these days. So I think it's fair to say that 1,471 schools in one term is a lot by any measure!

Anyway, this is not just a story about SIMS, so let's move on from churn and take a look at the overall market data:

As always, these Tableau vizzes are designed to let you explore the data yourself; but here are my reflections having had a proper rummage through:  
  1. Arbor remain the leading challenger and are now the second largest vendor overall. Arbor won 1,033 schools in one term, taking their total to 2,913. That's happened less than two years after they passed 1,000 schools in total. They also won the most schools in each of the following categories: primary, secondary, PRU&Special, Academies and LA schools. The performance with LA schools was particularly eye-catching, acquiring 447 schools over the period (the next most was Bromcom with 65), bolstered by their prominent position on the Herts for Learning MIS framework.
  2. Bromcom are also making big strides. In any other term, Bromcom's numbers would have made them the box office performer. They added 367 schools - more than Arbor has won in any previous term, and similar to the number Bromcom won over the previous five terms combined. And this only includes a handful of the schools they expect to join following their success with the recent West Sussex tender - so we know there's more to come. It's also notable that Bromcom are now the third largest vendor when the market is measured by pupil numbers, with RM Integris dropping down to fourth.
  3. Other challengers are picking up the pace. IRIS Ed:Gen (a version of iSAMS for state schools) gained 40 schools and Juniper Horizons (a reworked version of Pupil Asset) gained 31. For IRIS the change is particularly noteworthy, since they only started the period with 18 schools.** Both will find reasons to be cheerful in that performance.
  4. ScholarPack aren't going anywhere either. Given that ScholarPack and Arbor now share an owner (The Key), it's reasonable to speculate as to whether ScholarPack schools will be migrated on to the Arbor platform at some point. Well, the data shows us no sign of that happening yet, with ScholarPack gaining a healthy 93 schools during the term and losing just 2. So it looks like the company is committed to dual-running both products for the time being. 
  5. SIMS are down to a 60% market share. I know I already banged on about SIMS' churn above, but it's worth taking time to acknowledge their overall performance too. Beneath the 60% headline figure, what stood out to me is that SIMS are down to 50% of all academies (you can see this for yourself by using the checkboxes on the first tab of the viz to select academies only). SIMS dropped below a 50% share of large (30+ school) MATs in autumn 2019; and as I've said before, larger MATs lead the way in terms of how smaller MATs behave. I'll dive into the various different MAT size categories in more detail when I look at annual data based on the Autumn 2022 census.
  6. What to make of RM Integris? I have lost count of how many times I've written a paragraph about Integris that can be summarised as "they didn't lose that many schools, but they didn't really win anything either". If ever there was a term to break that trend, this was it. And you know what...? They didn't lose that many schools, but they didn't really win anything either! 🤷‍♂️ 
  7. Advanced are in serious trouble. As was to be expected after losing the AET contract to Arbor, Advanced dropped from 244 to 186. Their annualised churn is at almost 40%. It's hard to see a way back from here.
  8. Faronics are gone... I married a Canadian, so I was kind of excited when Vancouver-based Faronics came to the UK in 2018. Well, it's time for me to get un-excited because they're now officially out of the English state school game after their lone school migrated to Bromcom. I'm honestly a bit sad aboot it.
  9. ... But new names are coming. I was interested to hear SIMS founder Phil Neal big up the ET-AIMS team on a recent fireside chat with Nick Finnemore - so I'd expect to see some schools for them in future updates. And Compass, the Australian MIS I work with, have a healthy pipeline of schools to onboard in the coming months too. When you put those two alongside IRIS, Juniper, Bromcom and Arbor, it means there are now six legitimate growth cloud options. If I was a school procuring an MIS I'd want to take a quick look at all of them before kicking off a procurement exercise - you've got more choice than ever before!
A final thought about SIMS: while this set of data is noteworthy, I'd argue the next 12 months will actually be a better indicator of the product's long term health. I guess 13% churn is bearable if it stops there! But if schools continue to leave in high volumes this autumn, and then more switch away from SIMS in 2023, it'll become increasingly hard for ESS to complete a turnaround. In theory I assume the three year lock-in was designed to prevent further churn beyond Easter 2022, but with that arrangement under investigation by the CMA, and leading MIS vendors publicising policies that only charge schools for a new MIS once their old contract has expired, I don't think we should see it as guaranteed that the SIMS switching will stop anytime soon.

* Schools were subsequently offered a six month break clause, but the broader strategy has essentially remained unchanged.

** Those 18 pre-existing schools were technically on iSAMS, but I group them together for the purposes of this analysis since the products are close relations.

Sunday, 10 July 2022

The latest on SIMS Next Gen

Disclaimer: I have past and present commercial relationships with many MIS vendors, including an ongoing involvement with Compass, an Australia-based MIS that is launching in the UK. I'm also a co-founder of two assessment startups - Smartgrade and Carousel - that exist in markets adjacent to the MIS. Nonetheless I aim to write this blog impartially, from the perspective of a neutral observer. This matters to me - it's basically the blog I wish had existed back when I was a MAT senior leader trying to get a handle on MIS and edtech. I also now provide MIS market datasets and reports as a service and offer free, informal consultations on MIS procurement to schools and MATs. If you would like to discuss any of this, contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I'll soon be getting hold of the May MIS census figures from English state schools, and it's a big release for SIMS-watchers. Why? Well, in November last year the company announced that schools would be required to move from their previous annual contracts to mandatory 3 year contracts, and, let's just say the news wasn't universally well-received by their customersSIMS contracts run from 1st April to 31st March, so the immediate effect of this change was that schools had to decide whether to stay and accept the longer contract, or go elsewhere fast. (A couple of months later SIMS did offer a six months break clause after what Schools Week describes as a "backlash" from schools, but still, you'd assume that if there will be an increase in switching, we'll see evidence of that in the May data.)

So to help make sense of the imminent data release, I thought I'd investigate how SIMS are presenting their offer almost a year after the acquisition by ParentPay. But before we check out the latest announcements, here's some context. In September 2021 Mark Brant (Group CEO of ParentPay) set out his highlights from the first 5 weeks of owning SIMS. This included announcing that they were "massively out-investing all our MIS competitors" and that they would "spend more than £40 million to modernise the product portfolio and radically improve the quality and breadth of the services ESS delivers". He also talked about a culture of "less bureaucracy and fast decision making".

Then In October 2021, Brant announced Next Gen SIMS, offering "Cloud-based, continuous improvement from Spring 2022". This was newsworthy for a couple of reasons: 

    • It sounded like a tacit admission that SIMS Primary, their pre-existing cloud initiative unveiled in January 2018, was being shelved.
    • But it also sounded like there was a Big New Plan - "Next Gen will be deployed as pure cloud-based applications and will sit alongside existing SIMS features", says Brant. This appeared to mean that existing SIMS would be available in its current form via a browser, alongside new native-cloud modules. In an approach described as "Evolution, not revolution", the implication was that the user would get all of SIMS in a browser, with the old bits being replaced one by one with new cloud SIMS. The article implied a quick rollout - Brand says "Best of all, these improvements will begin to be delivered for all our SIMS schools at no additional cost, starting in Q1 2022."

So where are SIMS now? Well, this recent sponsored post in Schools Week provides something of a progress report. First, it reiterates the £40m development pledge, and says of Next Gen that the "first slice of technology is Take Register for primary school teachers", which has been piloted in "dozens of schools". Here's the part about new functionality in full:  

Cover teachers can now take registers when the regular teacher is absent; users can view notes against attendance marks; and we’re working to ensure users can add and edit new notes, too. Our development teams are also making progress in adapting Take Register to make it suitable for secondary schools. You can find out more about Take Register by clicking here. 


I’m also very pleased to report that another slice of SIMS Next Gen has recently gone into pilot mode. Teachers need quick and easy access to the contact details for parents and/or guardians of their learners. We’ve been developing our Learner Contacts functionality to do exactly that. Look out for an update on where we are with this in our next piece!

I also found this April 2022 article from the SIMS blog useful to understand how the company is coping with the tricky technical challenge of running Next Gen and SIMS 7 side by side. It says:

        It takes just five minutes for Take Register’s data to be synchronised back into SIMS.

Or, to put it another way: Take Register doesn't update the SIMS database in real time; there's seemingly a process it goes through before committing any changes.

Then the latest article on the SIMS website includes further details on planned developments:

Our next slice, which is currently in pilot, is Pupil Contacts functionality. The ability to use Pupil Contacts on a mobile device has proved popular, due to its accessibility for activities that happen outside the school building.   

The team is now focused on moulding enhancements around the insight and feedback that they’ve received from the pilot. In fact, changes have already been made – such as improved search functionality to support more flexible inputs, or ‘fuzzy’ search and design improvements to make it easier to move around the various features. There’s more to do to, such as optimising Pupil Contacts for tablet screens, before we roll out the slice to all Primary Schools. 

And we’re delighted to announce plans to take our latest slice, our MAT reporting tool, into pilot later this year. This is powerful technology, which harnesses AI and Machine Learning, to identify areas of concern surrounding attendance.

My interpretation of all this is:

  1. The pace of SIMS Next Gen is ramping up - we're getting more and more information shared with us, and there are now several areas either in development or being piloted.
  2. That said, the only thing that will be live at any scale for the new academic year is "Take Register". And even then, that's currently in pilot for primaries only, though a wider rollout is planned for the summer. 
  3. SIMS aren't rushing to release Next Gen screenshots (I can't find any on the blog or elsewhere).
  4. Users can't yet add and edit new notes via Take Register (which may be linked to the technical complexities of running a local database and a cloud module side by side?). 
  5. The rollout of Next Gen will be a long-term, multi-year thing. After all, SIMS has *lots* of modules, and plenty of them (like behaviour and attendance, say) are not mentioned yet.
  6. Improving the experience on phones and tablets is a priority - though the expectation is seemingly for such access to be via a browser with responsive design rather than through native apps; otherwise it wouldn't make sense to say "optimising Pupil Contacts for tablet screens". I'm not clear what that means for the future of the SIMS Teacher App.
  7. MAT Analytics is a new focus area, presumably to improve MAT retention, which has been a particularly challenging area for SIMS in recent years. That's very much my thing, so I'll be watching for further announcements in this area with interest. In particular I'll be looking for specifics on how they plan to bring in AI and ML to attendance analytics. Or to put it another way, what will AI do that a rules-driven report ("show me pupils who have <95% attendance") couldn't? As I've blogged about before, AI is only the answer in edtech if you have a clear understanding of the question you want it to answer, and why traditional approaches aren't up to the job. Don't get me wrong, SIMS could have great answers to these questions! I just don't know what they are yet, so I'll be excited to find out more...
Will this be enough to stop schools and MATs from switching away from SIMS? Well, I prefer data to speculation, so hang tight for my imminent blog about the May 2022 census data to find out!

Monday, 14 March 2022

I'm boycotting BETT, and I suggest you should too

DISCLAIMER: This blog is written in a very personal capacity. I work as an advisor to a range of companies in the education sector, and this blog is in no way intended to reflect their views. I'm not trying to speak for anyone other than me; I simply encourage anyone taking the time to read this to reflect for yourself on where you stand, and act accordingly.

[UPDATE: Quite a lot happened after I wrote this bog. Here's my Twitter thread following Hyve's announcement later that week. And here's the Hyve announcement about the disposal of the Russian business for "a maximum cash consideration of £72 million". I'm not planning to comment further]

If you're in Moscow between April 12th and April 15th you can attend Securika, which the organisers describe as "the must-attend security industry business event" (according to Google Translate). You'll have the chance to check out suppliers of surveillance systems, perimeter fencing and armored complexes. Obviously if you're a journalist you'll need accreditation (this is Russia, now) And don't miss the opportunities for CPD - you can attend sessions on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in security and the application of AI in video surveillance.

But of course you're not going to Securika. Russia is at war with Ukraine for goodness sake. And anyway, if you read my blogs you probably work in education - why would you want to support the security industry (or any aspect of Russia's heavily sanctioned economy, for that matter) in a a country that is waging a war of conquest and arresting people for holding up blank signs?

Well, the problem is, Securika is staged by Hyve Group, the LSE-listed events business who also operate BETT. And Securika is not their only Russian event; Reuters reports that 27% of their revenue comes from Russia through events in electronics, laboratory equipment, mining and the like. So if you're off to Bett later this month, you're supporting the company behind Securika, whether you like it or not. 

Sure, you might say, but the world is complex and the Russia-Ukraine war is a very recent phenomenon - isn't it harsh to blame Hyve by association? Let's at least hear what they have to say about the situation before we throw them under the bus.

Well, here's an excerpt from their only public proclamation on the "Russia/Ukraine conflict" to date:

Hyve continues to closely monitor the situation in Russia and Ukraine. At present colleagues in both countries are safe and the Group remains in daily dialogue with its teams to provide support.
The Group has taken the decision to postpone events in Ukraine, which represent less than 3% of the Group's revenue, until further notice. At present the Group has seen no impact on its events schedule in Russia, but anticipates disruption to Western participation as a result of the ongoing conflict. The Group is currently assessing the potential impact of the latest sanctions by the EU, the UK and the USA. Revenues from the Group's Russian events are contracted in roubles and other currencies, while the costs of organising the events are incurred primarily in roubles, limiting the Group's exposure to the impact of rouble devaluation on profitability. 
A further update will be provided in due course as appropriate.    

So no condemnation (it's the "Russia/Ukraine conflict", dontcha know - you wouldn't want to be seen to be taking sides); no acknowledgment of any humanitarian impact other than the safety of their staff; just reassurances about the way the group is able to limit the financial impact of "disruption to Western participation". 

"Why are you telling me all this?", you might ask. You don't endorse Hyve's Russian operations - you just want to meet up with colleagues and customers in the education technology space and stay out of anything political.

And while I have sympathy with that view, I don't think it meets the moment. Companies in all industries are pulling out of Russia because, as Anna MacDonald from Amati Global Investors says in the linked BBC article, "it was just utterly inappropriate to continue to [generate profits from Russia]". And it's not like these events snuck up on Hyve - Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and things have festered or escalated ever since. 

So here's my bottom line: if Hyve want the sector to continue to support BETT, I think we should ask that they should announce the cancellation of all Russian events. If they don't do that, we should not go.

That's a tough thing to ask of them and I appreciate it's easy for me to say and much harder for them to do. Employees' jobs (and maybe also safety) would be at risk, I assume local authorities would be angry; money will be lost. And the world is complex: I would understand a Hyve employee or shareholder lamenting the hypocrisy of amateur do-gooders like me who criticise them while buy goods and services from other repressive regimes, wittingly or unwittingly. This isn't thrown in as polite window dressing - I absolutely don't think I (or any of us) have unimpeachable moral credentials, and I will approach any further public statement from Hyve with an open mind. My hope is that they do pull out of Russia, and I would give them huge respect and credit if they do so. 

It's also a tough thing to ask of you. Maybe you feel it's not your call to make; perhaps you don't want to get in trouble with your employer; or it could be that you feel you can't afford to lose money and custom by pulling out. These are all big decisions, and I'm not going to judge anyone for the way they make that decision. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable writing such a confrontational blog, and if I knew people at Hyve I'd probably prefer to petition them behind the scenes, at least at first.

But of course I have written this blog, and I've done so because I can think of no other event in my adult lifetime where the moral imperative to take a side is so clear cut. Global affairs are often complex. Civil wars can seem impenetrable from the outside. Some conflicts have been raging from before we were born. But never have I lived through a totalitarian country trying to extinguish its neighbour's desire to choose a democratic future for itself. It has echoes of the past and lessons for the future that require us to take a stand. If I were old enough, I want to believe I would not have done business with companies that operated in apartheid South Africa. Putin's Russia has earned for itself a place in the world no less deserving of pariah status.

It's time for Hyve to get out of Russia, and if they don't, I would encourage you to join me in boycotting BETT.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

MIS MARKET MOVES WINTER 2021: SIMS is in trouble; Arbor is the biggest beneficiary

Disclaimer: I have past and present commercial relationships with many MIS vendors, including an ongoing involvement with Compass, an Australia-based MIS that is launching in the UK. I'm also a co-founder of two assessment startups - Smartgrade and Carousel - that exist in markets adjacent to the MIS. Nonetheless I aim to write this blog impartially, from the perspective of a neutral observer. This matters to me - it's basically the blog I wish had existed back when I was a MAT senior leader trying to get a handle on MIS and edtech. I also now provide MIS market datasets and reports as a service and offer free, informal consultations on MIS procurement to schools and MATs. If you would like to discuss any of this, contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.   

SIMS is in trouble. 

Following a year in which they were acquired by Montagu and then merged with ParentPay, the kindest thing you can say about SIMS's strategy is that it is, umm, defensive. Here are their two most high profile moves in recent months:

  1. They've had to change their cloud strategy yet again. SIMS first piloted a cloud version of SIMS in 2014 in Northern Ireland. It didn't go well and the project was pulled. They then relaunched their second attempt at a cloud product ("SIMS Primary") in 2017. So how's that going? Well, the most recent announcement from SIMS launched something called Next Gen SIMS and it seems to be... not SIMS Primary? According to the release "the components of Next Gen will be deployed as pure cloud-based applications and will sit alongside existing SIMS features, giving users the opportunity to move across at their own pace." I take that to mean that they're releasing planning to release new cloud SIMS modules one by one, and as an alternate way to access and use your existing SIMS database, with a long-term gradual move of the whole product to the cloud. But I may be wrong? Maybe it's a sort-of cloud emulation of existing SIMS that can be iterated into a cloud product? Either way, I also assume that SIMS Primary is no more since it isn't mentioned at all in the announcement.
  2. They're forcing customers onto three year contracts at short notice. To say it's been controversial is an understatement: it's gone down so poorly that 400 of their customers have signed up to collective action to resist the changes!
So how have SIMS ended up year after what has presumably been a busy year of strategising? Well, as it happens, I have a chart for that:

What this shows you is that the percentage of the previous year's English state school customers leaving SIMS (i.e. their "churn") has increased from 0.7% in 2014 to 5.9% in 2021 (941 schools in total). The churn rate accelerated significantly over the past year. My basic rule for the MIS market is that churn of above 5% is a big warning flag. Schools don't move MIS without a good reason to do so - there's quite a lot of change management involved, so the perceived hassle has to be triggered by some kind of justification. 

There's not much reassurance for SIMS in the phase breakdown either:

The secondary number will be particularly concerning for SIMS. Primary churn has been above 3% for four years now, so SIMS will have become somewhat resigned to leaking schools at this phase, but the migration away from the secondary product is a newer phenomenon. And that's just the historical data - if you're sitting in SIMS HQ, and you extrapolate a trend line for the next 2-3 years from that data, well, I guess that's what leads you to lock up your customers by any means possible while you still have them!

So how does this compare to their rivals? Well, if we overlay the churn rates of the main market players you see that Bromcom, Arbor and ScholarPack all now churn well under 2%.

It's not good news for all of SIMS's challengers, mind: Pupil Asset (now rebranded as Juniper Horizons) will be disappointed to have lost 6.9% of their customers, having got churn down to just 1.3% the previous year, and RM would have preferred to break what is now a six year streak of 3%+ churn.

So how does that impact the bigger picture of the English state school market? As usual, here are some pretty interactive Tableau charts; below them is my analysis of the main trends.

  1. Arbor won the year. Arbor's market share by # schools grew by 2.8% (from 4.8% to 7.6%). That's by some distance the biggest one-year rise for any company in the twelve years I've been gathering data. And there's more: while they've been the biggest winner on that metric for a few years now, what's new is that they grew by 2.7% measured by number of pupils (from 4.0% to 6.7%). This reflects their relatively recent competitiveness at secondary: in 2021 they won 75 secondaries compared to 66 for Bromcom. In 2020 it was 58-52 in favour of Bromcom and in 2019 it was 57-14 to Bromcom. Arbor also won this year's most hotly contested procurement, when AET chose them to provide a MIS to their 57 schools. (Bromcom are contesting this, having also raised a similar legal challenge after losing United Learning's tender to Arbor last year. This column isn't the right place to debate the legal merits of either action, but I will say that I worry for Bromcom that any upside gained by legal means will be more than offset by the negative publicity that comes from taking high profile MATs to court. Large MATs are influential; MATs  don't like being sued; and MAT leaders talk to each other...).
  2. Bromcom remains Arbor's main rival. All that said, Bromcom had a good year too, posting their biggest annual rise to date. They now have 4.0% of the market by number of schools (2020: 2.9%) and 5.8% of the market by number of pupils (2020: 4.4%). That makes them the clear number two challenger after Arbor right now. They'll also have been pleased to have won the recent Hackney LA procurement for a MIS and finance system in November 2021. Hackney have been SIMS users, so the decision to move wholesale to another vendor (rather than opt for a framework or just leave it up to schools) is a big deal, and it will be fascinating to track whether other LAs go down this route. The Hackney schools haven't started switching yet, so Bromcom's numbers should see a commensurate boost over the coming year or so as the migrations happen.
  3. ScholarPack is still growing. These days The Key own two MIS: Arbor and ScholarPack. It's therefore legitimate to wonder if they plan to keep both MIS live in perpetuity, or whether they'll start prioritising the Arbor platform, which is all-phase whereas ScholarPack is primary-only. Well, there's no evidence of any change of that nature happening yet. Only 5 schools left ScholarPack to join Arbor over the period, and 191 schools joined ScholarPack, which is the biggest gain since 2018, indicating a continued (and successful) sales effort.
  4. Nobody else is making much of a dent yet. Juniper Horizons (the MIS formerly known as Pupil Asset) gained 46 schools, which initially looks like a good effort and matches their number of wins in 2019 after adding just 9 in 2020. However, they also lost 31 schools, mostly to Arbor, so the net gain ends up being a more modest 15 schools. iSAMS (now marketed by new owners IRIS as Ed:Gen) achieved just 3 new wins alongside 1 loss, leading to a net gain of 2 schools. Faronics' attempt to enter the market seems to be over - they've been stuck at 1 school for 4 years, so I've now lumped them in with the "others" as there doesn't seem much point tracking them in their own right. Now the challenger picture could change in 2022 - I've no doubt that Juniper and IRIS continue to invest heavily in the market, and if you read my disclaimer at the top of the article you'll have noticed that I'm helping Compass, an Australian MIS, to enter the market. So if you're a MIS commissioner, the good news is that you have several promising cloud options to consider alongside the established challengers. This is a competitive sector!
  5. Advanced faces an uncertain future. Advanced's market share is down to 1.2% (from 6.3% a decade ago). Of their 275 remaining schools we know that 57 from AET are already on their way to Arbor, so without a rush of new sales they'll be below 1% pretty soon. And it's hard to believe that many new sales are coming their way in light of the fact that just two new schools joined them over the past year. I'm not sure how you turn that around.
  6. SIMS' market share from schools in large MATs has halved since 2014. In 2014 SIMS had 80% of the schools that are now part of the country's largest (30+ school) MATs. That share is now down to 39%. Large MATs only represent around 5% of the country's schools, but they're influential, as smaller MATs look to them for guidance on how to navigate the market. It's worth noting that Bromcom are the biggest challenger by some distance in this sector, with Ark, Harris, Hamwic, Oasis, David Ross and Leigh Academies Trust all choosing them. That said, AET's move to Arbor isn't yet reflected in the data, so that'll boost Arbor somewhat once those schools do move over.
  7. LAs are becoming mixed economies. My charts above include analysis of the market share in the largest LAs for the first time. I don't see a tonne of difference in the behaviour of larger LAs vs smaller LAs, but I find it's actually more helpful to look up close at a sample of LAs than try and look at their numbers in aggregate, so that's why I've included this analysis. And what you see when you look up close is that SIMS had an 90%+ market share in 14 of those 21 largest LAs in 2014, whereas in 2021 that's true of just 2 of them. I think this is significant - one thing that's propped up SIMS's market share is schools not really understanding that they have a choice. If your LA has a MIS support team and they only work with SIMS, you may be disinclined to look elsewhere, but if the school down the road is using something else, you'll be more open to contemplating alternatives. I also see evidence in the market of MIS support teams changing their business models to support multiple MIS, which reduces the barriers to switching: if you can keep your friendly support team while changing MIS, migration might seem less of a big deal. 
So what will 2022 hold? Well, the big question in the short term will be how many SIMS schools decline the now-mandatory 3-year contract and move elsewhere by March 31st. We'll know that when the May census data is published around July 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for my summer blog on the subject! That said, personally I think that the autumn 2022 data will be even more intriguing (i.e. a year on from this blog), as it will give us a true sense of whether challengers find ways to win SIMS school in spite of the three year lock-up. It'll also be clearer whether other challengers are starting to match Arbor and Bromcom when it comes to competing for schools.