Tuesday, 1 August 2023

MIS MARKET MOVES SUMMER 2023: fewer than half of primaries are now using SIMS

UPDATED DISCLAIMER: I have past commercial relationships with a number of MIS vendors. I'm also a co-founder of two assessment ventures - 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 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.

In autumn 2018, SIMS was the chosen school Management Information System (MIS) for 76% of England's state primaries. At that time, Bromcom and Arbor's combined market share was 2%. In the five years since then, we've witnessed the kind of shift that happens rarely in the often slow-moving world of edtech. The summer 2023 data, which I just got my hands on this week, shows that SIMS's market share is now below 50% of primaries for the first time since I've been tracking the market. What's more, The Key (who now own Arbor, ScholarPack and RM Integris) are up to 40% between those three brands. So it's not even really accurate anymore to describe The Key as a challenger: on current trends, The Key will be the largest supplier of MIS to the primary sector within a year.

As always, here are some pretty charts summarising the latest data, followed by a few more observations:

  1. Arbor is steadily catching up with SIMS. Arbor is up to 4,240 schools overall, compared to 11,545 for SIMS. Nobody else breaks 2,000. They've now been the fastest grower for at least ten terms in a row.
  2. Bromcom keeps growing too, with 1,851 schools and 11% of the market in the latest data when measured by pupil numbers. They've captured 14% of academies, and they're now up to 4% of LA schools following some notable procurement successes. Arbor remains the faster grower, with over twice the number of schools on its books, but Bromcom is doing a good job of maintaining a growth trajectory, and stands out as the clear third place vendor. 
  3. It was a poor term for the other challengers. I was pleasantly surprised to see IRIS Ed:gen rise from 18 schools to 86 schools during 2022 (incorporating schools still on iSAMS). While they were no doubt helped by SIMS's bummer of a year, that's impressive growth by any standards, and marked them out as a potential breakout candidate in 2023. Well, that hasn't happened yet. In the past two terms, they've added just 4 schools net to be serving 90 schools in total. And things have been even worse for Juniper Horizons, which has 487 school customers (including those still on Pupil Asset), down from 510 at the same time last year. Three terms without growth might be considered something of a warning sign, and I wouldn't be surprised if other MIS are starting to eye up their customer base. In Norfolk, for example, where Juniper have over half of their schools, Horizons/Pupil Asset lost 10 schools in the last year. I'll keep an eye on market share in this LA as it seems like a bellwether for the broader performance of the MIS.
  4. Compass came from Ireland, and now they're doublin'. As I've mentioned in previous posts, until recently I was an advisor to Compass, the Australia HQ-ed MIS who established a strong presence in Ireland in recent years before winning their first English school in late 2022. In the January 2023 dataset they were up to 4 schools (from 1 the previous term), and that number has now doubled to 8. Compass are the first truly new entrant to the market since Pupil Asset, SchoolPod and iSAMS a decade ago, so they're offering us a fascinating real-time case study in whether it's possible for outside players to break through in England. For a first year in a very competitive market, this is a solid start.
  5. Plenty of schools are still switching. When SIMS moved to a "3 year lock-in" strategy in late 2021, their hope will presumably have been that after a brief flurry of switching, schools would stick with them on longer contracts while they got a cloud alternative to their core locally-hosted product to market. Yeah, that's not happened, though. Progress is being made with SIMS Next Gen - some primary assessment features were recently announced, for example, but it's some way away from being a finished all-phase product. In the meantime, 601 schools switched MIS between the Spring and Summer 2023 terms, and fully 474 of those were moving away from SIMS. Or to put it another way, more schools left SIMS last term than switched from any system in any full year between 2010 and 2013. I'd say we're on track for 1,300 to 1,600 switchers during the academic year, the majority of which are leaving SIMS.
  6. Advanced still have 149 schools on their books. Earlier this year Advanced announced that their MIS products were going end of life. So far, only 9 schools have left them this year, meaning that 149 need to find a new MIS home by September 1st. So alongside SIMS leakage, this is another factor keeping the switching market buoyant in 2023.
  7. Finance is now firmly part of the MIS equation. LAs are increasingly procuring a new finance system at the same time as a MIS. Bromcom have been proudly announcing big LA finance wins. The Key have rebranded RM Finance as Arbor Finance. IRIS is growing a state school MIS business off the back of its popular MAT finance system. So while you clearly can sell a MIS without a finance system, you'll increasingly find yourself in the minority if that's what you're doing.
One final thought on what it might take for a newer challenger to break through. I don't think it's enough to be "another solid cloud option" anymore - Bromcom and Arbor are too-well established and will be perceived by many as a safer option if there's no clear and compelling differentation. So instead I think you need to focus on breakthrough features to stand out from the crowd. That's hard in MIS world, when you may feel a pressure to have an extensive list of modules just to participate in the market (and that number seems to go up all the time). But I can't see a tonne of other ways to get heard in such a competitive market.

Sunday, 7 May 2023

MIS MARKET MOVES SPRING 2023: The Key are now in a third of English state schools

Disclaimer: I have past and present commercial relationships with many MIS vendors, including an ongoing role as an advisor for 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.

I recently got hold of the January 2023 census data. Truthfully, the release at this time of year is never earth-shattering - it tracks schools who move MIS between October and January, and that's just not a super-popular time to switch school systems.

But there were a few things of interest in the numbers, so I'm cranking out a blogpost regardless. As usual, here are the charts, with my analysis below.

  1. SIMS had their worst winter since (my) records began. SIMS lost 242 schools over the period. That may not sound like much, given they lost over a thousand in each of the preceding two terms, but it's more than they've ever lost over that part of the year since I started tracking things over a decade ago (the next highest was last year, when they lost 228 schools). That's significant, in that it indicates that SIMS's move to 3 year contracts (and associated break clause controversy) hasn't stemmed the tide yet.
  2. Arbor had their most dominant term ever. 301 schools switched MIS over the period. 236 of those (76%) moved to Arbor. This may in part be because other vendors don't encourage schools to switch over the Christmas period; but still, it's clear that Arbor remain the leading challenger.
  3. Once the RM Integris acquisition is finalised, The Key will be serving over a third of English state schools. The Key are buying RM Integris, and providing that sale completes following the current CMA investigation then the group will be providing MIS to 34% of the country's state schools. SIMS are at 55%. So I think we can all officially stop referring to SIMS as the dominant market player - there are now two big fish, and only one of them is growing. To misquote the Urban Cookie Collective, they are The Key and they've got the secret.
  4. Compass grew by 300%. In the autumn census Compass had their first school show up. Well, now they're up to 4, giving them a 300% term-on-term growth rate. If they can keep this kind of growth rate up for the next five years then it is a statistical fact that in 2028 they will be working with over a billion schools. (This is the kind of quality analysis I provide to companies who come to me for advisory services.)
  5. Spare a thought for Rufford Primary School, the most recent Advanced adopter. Since this data was captured, Advanced have announced that they're shuttering Cloud School this summer. That leaves their 158 schools just two terms to find another home. The news isn't in itself that surprising - the writing was on the wall once their largest customer Academies Enterprise Trust switched to Arbor a year or two ago - but the short timeframes for customers to find a new home is somewhat eyebrow-raising. Which brings me to this blog's "Gah That Sucks" award winners of 2023: Rufford Primary School! Rufford joined Invictus Learning Trust - a MAT-wide Advanced customer - in September 2021, and switched to Advanced last autumn, presumably so that the Trust could have all schools on the same system. So do spare a thought for the poor folks in that school office who trained up on a new system, only to find that they'll have to move to their third MIS in the space of a year by the summer. Ouch.
To conclude, I'd just say that the next set of data (based on the May 23 school census, which I usually get hold of around August time) will be a biggie. It's traditionally been the period when you see the most SIMS switches in a year, because SIMS contracts used to run until 31st March. So if the move to 3 year contracts is going to help them, we should see that reflected in the May data. In 2021 (before the three year contract drama kicked off), 456 schools left SIMS, so if they can keep their losses below that threshold then I guess that's a win for them? But if they lose say 500+ then it'll be hard to see how all the suboptimal publicity has been worth it.

POSTSCRIPT: I'm hiring for a customer support associate at the moment to work with me at Smartgrade / Carousel. Edtech / customer service experience would be great, though it is not essential - the ideal candidate will be smart and quick to learn and as geekily excited as I am to work in the world of school assessment. Pay is £22-30k. If you think that might be you, or you know someone who could be interested, then apply here.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Compass: a new direction for UK MIS?

I’ve been involved in MIS in one way or another since 2012. Candidly, I’ve spent quite a bit of that time frustrated about the state of the market. In 2014 I wrote a blog entitled The structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard, which contained this observation:

The "MIS" market is not structured to foster innovation. 83% of schools in England use Capita's desktop-based SIMS product (this helpful Edugeek post has the full breakdown). Cloud-based systems such as the promising, primary-focused Scholarpack are barely 1% of the market. Capita are not exactly hurrying towards the cloud. Maybe this is because they are happy with the way the market is working for them. Maybe I'd feel the same if 17,912 schools were paying me to sell them a legacy product.

Well, SIMS have lost over 30% of their schools since then, and yet they still don’t seem exactly to be rushing to leave those locally hosted roots behind. Their cloud product, SIMS Next Gen, was launched in Autumn 2021 and yet the Next Gen marketing site still focuses mostly on “the first slice 'Take Register'”. 

So if innovation is not exactly gushing forth from SIMS, where do we look for it? Well, I took on an advisory role at Compass, the Australian HQ-ed MIS, two years ago precisely because I was keen to see more new thinking in this space. And now that their first English schools have gone live it seems like a great time to catch up with UK General Manager Pete Collison to find out more about the identity they’re carving out for themselves. Here’s a rundown of our conversation.

[Josh] Hi Pete. How did you get into the wonderful world of MIS?

[Pete] I’ve spent 20 years in edtech, mostly with RM and all in school-facing roles. In the past 5 or 6 years I’ve specialised in assessment, and that gave me exposure to RM Integris, the company’s MIS. What really struck me was how big the MIS ecosystem is and how many elements of the school day it touches. Conceptually a MIS covers everything from signing in to school in the morning through to taking registers throughout the day, managing lunch and handling clubs/trips and assessment. That’s a lot, right?

So when the opportunity came to move to Compass - I was excited to get stuck into the sector, and particularly to work with an established vendor that’s new in the UK. It felt like the perfect mix of a startup’s agility but with an established company behind it.

OK, so tell me about that ‘established company’. What’s the Compass story?

Well it’s a bit of a Silicon Valley-style story. The company is still run by the founders, John and Lucas, who met over lunch whilst working for AXA Australia, and bonded over their shared passion for Edtech. Compass 0.1 was essentially borne out of them looking to automate some of the more simplistic processes of schools. The first few months of Compass’s life was spent in Lucas’s parents’ garage, whiteboarding the school processes they wanted to automate! We’ve grown rapidly to serve over 2,000 schools in Australia and Ireland since then, but the company still feels quite startuppy in its culture. It’s founder-run, purpose driven, and fast-moving. And we are proud that Compass school number 1, Balwyn High School in Melbourne, is still a key customer to this very day!

The nice thing about how we’re approaching the UK is that while we benefit from Compass’s global credibility and broad range of pre-existing features, we also have a very substantial team here with its own identity, so all school interactions are handled from the UK. We’re very hands-on - we collaborate closely with schools and make frequent onsite visits to ensure that we understand their needs. We’re always on site when schools go live, so it’s a high touch and human service. I think this is one thing that really sets us apart: we make time for every school and they get a lot of time from us before, during and after migration to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

Right, so tell me more about the Compass strategy in the UK

The great thing about Compass is that we’re a fully-featured MIS, with a really broad range of modules, so we can be a one stop shop if schools want; but equally we integrate with other systems and we’re very happy to give schools complete flexibility to use other software alongside us if they so wish. In other words, we are very mindful that Compass is part of a school ecosystem, and we know that it’s for a school to decide how we fit into that.

I believe choice is good. It improves innovation and ultimately that leads to better outcomes. I’d love schools to choose Compass, but regardless, by increasing choice we know we’re doing a good thing.

Importantly, we also feel there’s a space for a vendor who is genuinely purpose-led. Compass is a for-purpose company, not a for-profit company. That dictates our behaviour and how we support our customers.

You mentioned there that you’re fully featured - tell me a couple of areas where you really stand out from the competition.

Right, so let’s take one universal part of the system, and one quite advanced area. Starting with the universal, we’re really proud of how School Census works. Because Australia doesn’t really have an equivalent concept, we basically got to design this bit of the software for the UK from the ground up. When you look at it you see straight away that everything you need to do is visible in one set of windows. We’ve also set up the flow so that only relevant students are displayed. Everything is also easy to export to spreadsheets for checking. It’s been so well-received that we’ve even just had some schools import data before they go fully live so they can run census through us. That makes us proud of the approach we’re taking. 

School Census in Compass

Then perhaps the most advanced part of the Compass offer is timetabling, which we offer through our Griddle module. You don’t have to use it if you adopt Compass, so It’s a great example of how we can be a one stop shop or part of a modular ecosystem in a school or MAT.

But if you do take on Griddle, the first thing you’ll discover is that it’s designed to cater for the best interests of both students and staff - for example there’s the ability for pupils to choose their options online, and that feeds straight into Griddle. Schools can create rules about which groups of subjects students can choose from, or define a range of pathways, such as academic and vocational. In terms of the Timetable itself, specific staff can be assigned to classes, or groups of staff can be used - such as “KS3 English teachers”. The Timetable Engine will then optimise the scheduling of the timetable, taking into account all of the requirements for staffing and also the distribution of classes and teacher load. It’s incredibly powerful and is a real step forward from what we’ve seen schools using to date.

Students selecting their options and preferences in Griddle

Oh and actually let me throw in one more thing. A nice part of the Compass package is something called Kiosk which is totally unique. It’s a physical terminal which sits by the school's reception and handles things like sign-in and sign-out, both for visitors and students, who can use Compass-issued access cards for this purpose. If a school chooses, their registers can be fully automated based upon student and staff tap-in and tap-out. Kiosk can also handle cashless catering using those same cards. We think this combination is a first for a UK MIS. 

Besides features, what’s something special about the Compass software?

A common thing we constantly hear from our schools who switch over is the user experience for staff and parents. We know schools are time-poor and their staff have a vast disparity of technical experience and confidence. Yet, School software can often be outdated compared to corporate technology or more modern apps such as social media platforms. It makes no sense! At Compass, we are constantly thinking about the end user. We have a modern UX design, simple navigation and colour coding to make Compass easy to learn for new users. We have a dedicated team of UX designers working day and night to make Compass intuitive, which is heavily led by customer feedback. That’s our specialty, I think, making complex tasks as simple as possible, with information easy to find and accessible to the whole school community.

Nice! So where are you now in terms of the UK schools market? How many schools do you have, how big is the team, and so on?

Well, we’ve had a good first year, with over 25 schools already signed up. As you know one of those went live in the autumn, and we were up to five by January. The rest will go live over the coming months. The key thing to say is that we don't rush schools, but we are able to accommodate their needs if they need to move quickly. We let them go live at their own pace.

The team consists of over 200 employees from all around the world, with a large proportion of them dedicated to the UK market. Currently, 15 of these employees are based in the UK, and the team is continuing to expand rapidly.

In that case, I should probably ask you what you have to say to people considering a job with Compass? 

We’re growing and we’re well-funded. Being a global organisation also brings opportunities - we’re very supportive of our UK team spending time in Australia and Ireland, for example. 


As for the type of people we hire, when interviewing, the first thing we look for is cultural fit. That cuts both ways - we need to make sure we hire people who are going to get what they need to be successful. We also offer plenty of geographical flexibility as we fully embrace hybrid and remote working for all roles. 

What I’d also like to make clear is that as a fast growing organisation, our senior leaders of the future are joining us now. So I guess it’s not quite a chance to get in on the ground floor, but we’re not much past the mezzanine!

Find out more about Compass and contact them via their website