Around 400 schools have signed up to take collective legal action against England’s biggest school management information system (MIS) supplier.
Education Software Solutions (ESS) SIMS has scrapped its usual one-year rolling contracts in favour of a three-year contract extensions from April. The firm runs around 70 per cent of school MIS systems.
Schools say the move is forcing them to make decisions about switching providers with too little time to avoid being locked into the extended deal.
The government had told schools to delay signing up to the deals while it investigated. But today the Department for Education has told schools they can now proceed.
But law firm Stone King has now revealed that 49 clients, representing 397 schools, have signed up to take collective action in response to the contract renewal notices.
While official legal proceedings have not yet been launched, the firm said it is in dialogue with ESS lawyers and believes the change is legally questionable.
Graham Burns, a partner at the firm, said: “There has been no consultation with schools and trusts before the announcement was made to move to a three-year contract cycle, and the trusts have not been given a sufficient period of time to run a compliant procurement process and potentially migrate to another provider.
“We are supporting the trusts to negotiate a sensible, amicable and, most importantly, a fair outcome with ESS which allows the trusts to continue to operate their schools without disruption.”
DfE gives green light for school to proceed as normal
Last month the DfE said it was looking into the change and encouraged “all schools to pause before agreeing to this new contract whilst we investigate”.
But in an email sent to school leaders today the department now states: “Our advice is that schools should proceed in connection with the proposed contracts as they ordinarily would when procuring any contract, following the obligations they have as a contracting authority.”
Schools should ensure they manage public money compliantly and “deliver best value from their budgets”, the email adds.
Contracts are due to expire in April next year, meaning schools would need to put new systems in place by this point if they wish to leave.
SIMS initially told its customers if they wanted to cancel their current contract they must give notice by December 31.
Schools were told they have up until February 28 to sign up to the new terms to ensure “continuity of service”.
Mark Brant, chief executive of ParentPay, told Schools Week today: “There is no basis for legal action with the move to industry standard 3-year agreements which simply aligns us with many other providers.”
The firm will “continue to communicate to our customers setting out their options, and the actions required should they wish to continue to use SIMS into the future,” he added.
DfE guidance sent to schools in 2019 states that if an update within a contract term is “sufficiently material”, a new procurement exercise is required.
But the DfE said in today’s email that multi-year contracts “should be considered as a single total overall sum”. This means a new procurement process is required if the total contract cost surpasses £189,330.
A survey conducted by The Key – a competitor to SIMS – found 91 per cent of SIMS users said they did not feel they had enough time to procure other systems by April.