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!