Switching MIS: Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School
02 July 2020 / Matt Dovey - Network Manager at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School
We'd felt, for a long time, that we were being held back. But when you're held back, you're never quite sure how far you can go forward.
Facility had always done enough, just about. It kept the data. It took the registers. It--eventually, with a lot of coercion and frustration--gave us reports. But as time went by, enough was no longer enough. Advanced had abandoned development of this 90's era platform, and we were shackled to a dead horse, growing increasingly conscious that we could, and should, expect more of our MIS. It would be a big job to change--an MIS touches every single aspect of school life--but it was starting to feel like we were making more work for ourselves by sticking with the devil we knew.
I'd anticipated this coming for a while, and kept half an eye on the market in preparation, and one name always came up when people asked for recommendations: Bromcom. We, like so many others, had thrown out a hundred or so of those little black book registers sometime around 2010, but I knew it wasn't the same product any more, even if I had to explain that to SLT a few times throughout this process. When we began to seriously contemplate alternatives, Bromcom was the one definite name on our list (we also spoke to SIMS, Arbor and Advanced Cloud School). I didn't necessarily know much about the new Bromcom at this point--researching MIS options isn't something you do for fun, after all, you wait until you need to--but I had a generally good impression from talking to other network managers.
Even so, I wasn't prepared for how good the demonstration would be.
At the time we were looking at switching, a new Headteacher had just started with us having come from a SIMS school, so I was more than a little worried that we'd end up jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire as far as archaic software architectures go. We had the SIMS demo first, in fact, and it seemed like it'd be an awful lot of work switching over for not a lot of benefit--plus a load more work in two years' time (supposedly) when SIMS 8 finally launched. It looked competent enough, and certainly complete enough, but it was hard to see how it was any better than what we had, and you do hope for a little improvement when switching after ten years.
Then Bromcom came in. Now MIS demonstrations are not, alas, the most thrilling way to spend a morning: I sat through four of them, and they are hours I'm never getting back. But within half an hour of the Bromcom demo starting there was, sad as it is, a palpable sense of excitement in the room. You could see the cogs turning in SLT's minds as they realised all the things we could be doing, all the information waiting to be revealed from data we already had. They started to ask questions in tentative voices, thinking they were surely going too far here, that some things were simply not possible--but no, here it is, three clicks later.
When I caught up with one assistant head afterwards, she said the demonstration left her feeling embarrassed at what we were putting up with on our current system.
There were a lot of things that impressed us in those four hours: the intuitive, colourful interface, organised by workflow not data structures; the simplicity and power of reporting; the comprehensiveness of the solution. But two things stood out most of all: firstly, how much of the system had been developed in response to feedback from schools, and the collaborative relationship between Bromcom and its customers; and secondly, how joined up the thinking in the system was.
Let me expand on that a little bit. Platforms like Facility and SIMS work, by and large, through third-party add-ons. You get the core product from Advanced or Capita respectively, but then you have to buy room bookings from someone else, safeguarding from another company, online payments from a third... but Bromcom is an all-in-one package. Now I knew this going in: it's Bromcom's chief selling point, and much of its power with information comes from all the data being in one system. I had been telling this to every member of SLT that would listen for weeks. Even so, I was caught out by how powerfully it's leveraged by the system: I asked, at one point, about options on the room booking aspect, and would we be able to exempt the exams officer from any restrictions on how far forward you could book?
Why would you need to, came the reply.
Well, she needs to plan the exams further ahead than 4 weeks, and has to know the room is available before any teachers book it.
Ah, said Jason, a smile on his face: she won't need to, because when she sets the exam up and allocates a room, it will automatically update it on the room booking sheet.
It's a small thing, but if you'll forgive me the internet colloquialism: Mind. Blown.
And there's so many other examples of that--an updated datum in one place propagates throughout the whole system, triggering processes, alerting staff, updating live dashboard summaries. Unlike more old-fashioned systems, Bromcom is a system that tries to get out of your way and simplify your workload as much as it can.
When we started I was expecting brisk discussions over which platform we'd go for, but in the end it was unanimous without needing any conversation at all: everyone, independently, liked Bromcom best. Decision made. Purchase order submitted. Launch schedule drawn up. Everything was set for Easter, and in three short months we'd be moving forward again at last.
...and then the world as we knew it ended.
The COVID-19 lockdown began two days before our on-site training day was scheduled. It had taken weeks to organise staff around timetables and room availability and webinar scheduling to get the training plan organised, and it all went up in smoke.
You think you've planned for every eventuality in a project, then a once-in-a-century global pandemic kicks off. Typical. This'll come up on my performance management.
It's already easy to forget how strange those early days of lockdown were; you really can get used to anything. But in late March, everything was shifting on a daily basis, and it was impossible to plan more than a week ahead.
We had specifically requested and paid for an on-site training day to ensure that people's first exposure to the system would be as hands-on as possible: the success of any project like this rests utterly on staff buy-in, and the best way to get that buy-in was to build their confidence with Bromcom as quickly as possible. We wanted to keep that on-site day if at all possible, and so, in conversation with SLT and a very flexible Bromcom, we pushed our launch date back. The timing of our existing MIS contract allowed it, the national cancellation of exams gave us a bit more freedom for the summer term, and surely all this would have blown over in two or three weeks, right?
Ha ha. Ha. Not so much.
As I write this at the end of May, we're still in lockdown. Despite the government's wishes that schools re-open on June 1, there's no plan from them on how we're meant to achieve that safely, so who knows when staff will be back on site in any numbers. Strange days.
On-site training was a non-starter, then. Our new date of June 1st was firm: we needed that last half-term to ramp up our use of the system and expand from the basics at launch to include things like safeguarding and the parent app for the new academic year.
Lockdown has changed the way we all work. Now I, as IT Support, probably have an unfairly negative view of how well people can use IT: I only see them when they're struggling, after all, and rarely witness moments when people are using it fine without needing my help. In all honesty I was a little nervous about people connecting into a webinar on their own from home. By the time our rescheduled training was due to kick off, though, we were a month or more into lockdown and remote working had become the new normal, so I took a deep breath, ordered a bunch of long HDMI cables for staff to connect their laptops to TVs as a pseudo-projector, and sent out the schedule to the twenty or so staff involved at this stage.
And it all went fine. Really well, in fact. Having access to a test system through the training period, one where you know the data will be overwritten again (unlike some other solutions), is a massive help. It allows staff to follow along during the webinar itself, and come out of training and immediately practice what they've been shown without worrying about breaking anything.
It was useful for more than that, too. The test system is, after all, just a live system you're not using yet--unless you find yourself in national lockdown, and suddenly have a use for it. Up till now we've communicated with parents through our online payments provider, and it's... fine, but it's a bit awkward, and plain text only, and doesn't support attachments, and you need to do it a year group at a time, and you can't separate permissions for it from the financial side, and, and, and. But Bromcom? Bromcom's communication is fantastic. Since lockdown started we've put the test system into use for keeping in touch with parents, and had compliments from parents at the sudden improvement in our contact; even before we had the training, the system is so intuitive to use that you can more or less work it out by accident (a very big change from Facility!). I could bring staff up to speed in only ten minutes; it took longer to talk them through downloading TeamViewer so I could deliver said training.
And once you start using it for one thing, you start using it for everything. Bit by bit I've abandoned ePortal without even meaning to, finding myself looking up even the smallest details on Bromcom because it's better. It's quicker. It's easier to read. It's not constantly frustrating you in a dozen little ways that you've put up with for years, like a stone in your shoe.
You always come out of a demonstration with the lingering feeling you've seen a perfect, polished experience, unrepresentative of reality. It's a rare delight to discover it was all true.
The Big Result
It's always hard to predict how a big project will pan out. You plan as much as you can, but no plan survives contact with reality, and at a certain point you have to jump in and trust your ability to get through. Even so, the circumstances that transpired were a little unexpected. Bromcom have been flexible and supportive throughout though, rearranging whole training plans and work schedules so suit our new date. I don't think there's been anything we've asked of them through this strange period that they've not been able to accommodate.
There are things in IT to get excited about, areas of amazing new developments and astonishing insights. You wouldn't expect a school MIS to be one. But we're now only five days away from launch and I'm excited about it. I know the other school staff are going to love it. It's going to support us as a school in ways we can't even imagine yet.
Although a cloud MIS offers obvious advantages over the old-style local installation, we felt Bromcom in particular offered advantages over other cloud providers such as Arbor and Cloud School: chiefly that it was by far the most complete solution, but also that it is still clearly developing fast in a manner based on feedback from its customers, and would continue to remain ahead of the competition for some time to come. Even in the time between the demonstration and our launch we have seen an overhauled and much-improved interface introduced, and there are new safeguarding features arriving shortly that we’re looking forward to.
We let ourselves get stuck in the past while the future was waiting for us all along. But we're finally catching up. We're ready.
Read more in our Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School Case study with Matt Dovey