Data Demands: Are management information systems a help or a hindrance?

Management information systems (MIS) were introduced in the 1980s to save teachers time. But as the government demands to know more about each child, teachers say data entry has become burdensome and a source of stress. MIS providers, meanwhile, say it’s not data, but poor pupil behaviour that’s taking its toll. In the second of her series focusing on technology in schools, Jess Staufenberg looks at the true cost of the data revolution

What’s invisible to most school visitors but is heaving away in the background? Answer: data. In fact, schools are some of the most data-rich buildings in a community with information whirring away on cranky servers, processing everything from pupil grades to family background, all of it increasingly used to assess student and school performance.

“We are in a data revolution,” one multi-academy chief executive said last year. But what does that mean?

The toolbox into which this “data” is poured is called a management information system, or MIS for short. These vast databases chronicle school activity, pupil backgrounds and national targets before translating them into easy reports.

The largest database model that schools can purchase is Capita SIMS, used by an astonishing 83 per cent of UK schools, bar Scotland. Its penetration is a product of its history. Originally created by Bedfordshire teacher Phil Neal in the 1980s, it was later snapped up by FTSE100 private company Capita in 1994. SIMS – short for schools information management system – was originally created by Neal to save the time he spent as a teacher producing pupil reports. By gathering all the information on each child into one system, his reports could be generated automatically and so saved its creator, then subsequent customers, hours of writing. Nothing like it had existed before.

But teachers are now reporting that the time needed to enter the data into these systems is growing burdensome. Previously, school data was just the addresses, phone numbers, and safeguarding information of pupils. Over the past ten years, more of school life has begun to count as “data” and updates are occurring more often.

Tom Edwards, a sixth-form college teacher from London, said that while Capita SIMS helps him to find certain kinds of information quickly – such as whether a student is in school – the time needed to enter weekly test scores, termly grades and lateness is eating into the more pressing task of lesson preparation.

“Good behaviour is not about ticking a box”

“I don’t know what the union guidelines are, but we are having to put in too much data entry,” he said. “You can’t turn up to a lesson and stand there unprepared, but at least all your data entry is done. So it’s that bit that slides.”

James Weatherill, founder of another MIS provider, Arbor Education, agrees: “Teachers are having to enter more and more data, because the government wants more insight, so the problem is going to exacerbate. It’s causing a lot of workload issues.”

Yet the pull within SIMS is to look at the collection of data in a more microscopic scale – in real-time, in the classroom, as things happen.

Neal, who has remained as company director, plans to change the software package so schools are more able and likely to do so, with the choice to use SIMS for purely administrative purposes gradually phased out.

Phil Neal
Phil Neal

But he is adamant the shift will reduce teacher stress, as it will tackle the biggest cause of headaches: poor pupil behaviour.

“I do wonder if some of the issues in terms of bureaucracy complaints are because it’s tough being a teacher. There is an element of unaspirational parents who don’t instill into their children the value of education … It’s behaviour that’s the issue,” he says.

The new SIMS app therefore focuses on “microdata”: what time a pupil arrives to a lesson, how well they behave in each class, and the quality of their classroom effort – all entered in real time during the lesson by teachers with tablets who tap behaviour or praise points beside a child’s name. The information is then fed straight into a central “dashboard” where senior leadership can see it.

This newest version of SIMS is used by Jayne Mullane, headteacher of Mersey Vale Primary School near Manchester. She checks her dashboard of information on student progress and hour-by-hour incidents up to 20 times a day.

“It gives me a view I didn’t have before. My homepage on my PC is set up so that I can instantly see if any children get comments about behaviour or work. And that’s really powerful, because I can go into the classroom and say I noticed you did some really good work.”

Data is not just being collected in classrooms, but may soon be handed over to the children themselves. Graham Cooper, head of product strategy at Capita SIMS, wants to increase the “gameification” of data. “The kids can get their 50 behaviour points, their no-lates, the 95 per cent attendance rate,” he says. This idea is still in the pipeline, but parents are already able to access rolling information on their child via a SIMS app.

Jayne Mullane
Jayne Mullane

More than 1,000 schools also use Capita’s text alerts telling parents of late arrivals and playground incidents. Schools, however, are still “nervous” about this, Neal says, as inaccurately entered data can land them in hot water.

Indeed, at Mersey Vale, Mullane holds specific staff meetings just to ensure the information gets properly entered.

The workload implications are therefore a balance. It’s not necessarily a problem if microdata collection proves to be an effective method of keeping control in the classroom. Nor if using these new tools remains merely a matter of teacher choice.

Yet these are now being called into question by Neal’s plans to make the collection of microdata more difficult to avoid. He would like the “dashboard” used by Mullane — of her own volition — to be compulsory viewing. Unless headteachers know what these systems can do, he says, they are not adequately “reducing burdens on their teachers”.

“We have a dashboard that you can customise, and we made the mistake of making that optional; not enough schools realise it’s there,” he says.

“In the future I’m going to force it on them, so when they bring it up it’s all in front of their eyes.”

If school leaders are encouraged to feel they should be using these parts of the dashboard, the onus is likely to fall on the classroom teacher to begin to record information during lessons to fill up the charts. Workload may increase, and autonomy reduced.

Schools can, of course, move to other MIS providers who are chomping at the bit to take some of SIMS’ market share – but most are reluctant to move away from products they know well. This stickiness has meant competitors have struggled to break into the market with brand new solutions.

Tony Draper, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that such data systems could reduce the complexity of behaviour to box-ticking or a game.

“The minutiae is just not there. Good behaviour is not about ticking a box. It’s about the values and procedures in place inside that classroom. With parents it’s about human interaction, talking to them, to find out what’s going on in the life of that child.” To him, it is not behaviour that is the cause of teacher exhaustion, but an over-emphasis on standards according to a narrow set of measures. “Software like this, when too prescriptive, worsens the feeling that individual schools do not enjoy enough freedom. We don’t want that.”

The “data revolution” therefore started with a system designed to save time and could, in Neal’s version of events, continue to do that well, resolving behaviour and bureaucracy woes as it turns. Or, if others are to be believed, the revolution has come full circle with data now a significant drain on teacher time.

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  1. It is important to note that there are other MIS providers out there – that don’t agree with the Capita SIMS mentality. I work for Advanced Learning and we have been working hard to understand the pressures of teacher workload and help put in place solutions, not just shift the blame. Our work with David Didau and Stephen Heppell has shown that we need to start thinking carefully about the purpose of collecting data. You can read more about our thoughts here
    We would be more than happy to give a more balanced article in future, we are sure that other MIS provides like; RM, SchoolPod, Scholar pack and Bromcom would all like a say as well. There are alternatives to SIMS.

  2. Tony Parkin

    “Management information systems (MIS) were introduced in the 1980s to save teachers time” but inadvertently were the root of this ongoing problem? Phil Neal’s SIMS system was a godsend for the teachers who had to accumulate and enter data for the dreaded Form 7, and similar demands that DfE and LA made of the school. But this was NOT a school management information system, rather a data-capture system on behalf of the DfE and the LA!
    The widespread success of SIMS was down to the fact that it was the best at meeting the LA needs, and the purchasing of ‘MIS’ systems was done at LA level. Guess what happened – competing systems that arguably better met the needs of the school were forced out of the market in the 90s.
    The core business of a school is teaching and learning. Many MIS systems, including SIMS, did not attempt to do any management of teaching and learning, or at best had bolt-on modules that half-heartedly approached it. So guess what, teachers and schools were required to use systems that managed stuff like Form 7, that they cared little about, but which didn’t help them manage their core business. Imagine a bank with an MIS that told them who all their customers were, but didn’t handle money?
    Thankfully things have moved on and we have Learning Management Systems, some of which can actually save time and make teachers’ day to day lives easier. Also MIS systems like Capita SIMS are better at day to day support to classroom teachers. But many MIS systems still don’t have the schools core business at their heart. Is it surprising that they are not always seen by teachers as helpful, but rather as bureaucratic imposition?

  3. There is a need to ensure tools are part of an embedded system. Knowing what to do with the data- WII4M is so important. The data should be pinpointing action and allowing intervention to be targeted more effectively. Teachers need to see that the data will help them identify which children to support and how, and then help to track what is working or not. Data has to have tangible meaning and allow the teacher to do what is best and teach.. We still miss children who causes of their lack of progress may be language difficulties or their behaviour is misconstrued. Data can allow us to spot patterns and alert us earlier.. Data captured at class level can then be compared to other classes, year to year, school to school. It can allow capture of soft as well as hard sklls, and monitor emotion and wellbeing. It can provide information to be collated from multiple sources.. all this is amazing but still needs the tools to be part of a system and not thinking that it IS the system.

  4. I sent a reply into Schools Week on this and it was printed in the following issue which was nice but it was rather edited for space. Here is the original submission:

    I am not a teacher but I am a trained and experienced information architect with over 20 years’ experience of integrating technology platforms into a wide variety of organisations, predominantly in the Public Sector. I now run my own small education company which has developed a unique, solution focused, information based technology platform for schools, so when it comes to the effective use of information to drive positive outcomes, I feel I know what I am talking about.

    The article by Jess Staufenberg in this week’s issue left me with a sense of despair as someone with two young children who are currently going through the sausage machine we have created inside our schools. The education sector has fallen into the trap of mistaking data for knowledge and understanding; the horrible vision of ‘microdata’ capture and the assumption that somehow reacting to hourly data swings will solve the behaviour and other ‘problems’ in schools makes me cringe both professionally and as a father.

    I have spent my whole career persuading organisations to look beyond data. Any information architect will tell you that data can only become information when it is placed into a context; it can only be effectively used if it is correctly interpreted by human beings through the medium of understanding and knowledge. Our schools are meant to be full of individuals who have an intrinsic knowledge of how children learn, of the importance of meta-cognition and an understanding of the environmental context (school, family, social groups) on the ability for learning to flourish.

    In the hands of a true professional educator, with all the this understanding at their fingertips, data becomes information and there is no doubt that it can be used to enhance teaching and learning but if the data is wielded out of context, by individuals or groups who lack (or fail to apply) this understanding, two very negative trends quickly assert themselves:

    1. The data becomes the objective. This happens to the detriment of all else, so data volumes grow beyond anything that could be considered useful and;

    2. the system becomes wholly reactive and ‘problem focused’ leading to a dominance of negative outcomes.

    This is precisely what I see happening up and down the country in schools of all types, maintained, academy and free schools, the data is becoming the ‘goal’ of education.

    The allure of the data is so overwhelming that it is drowning out the voices of the professional educators. This is not a small problem, it is real and it is happening now; if we do not, as a society, reassert the value of pedagogy over this fixation with raw data then we are seriously in danger of failing the future generations, if we have not done so already.

    My daughters are not defined by numbers, they are living, breathing beings with passions, curiosity and the defining human quality of wonder at the world in which they live. Please, please don’t make it the mission of our education system to snuff all this out in order to produce two neat packets of raw data on a SIMS database.