At the recent BETT exhibition at London’s Excel Centre, Capita Education Services were out in force to showcase their recent product developments. I spent half an hour talking to Capita Education’s managing director Phil Neal about SIMS and education in general.

First, we talked about SIMS Discover. Discover won the innovation award at this year’s BETT exhibition. It’s certainly an innovative product but I think it’s fair to say that most schools still don’t use it – I wanted to know what’s holding back adoption?

Phil recognizes that technical installation has been difficult, especially in a hosted environment. Now, wherever possible, Capita are creating installation routines that work to a ‘next, next, next’ paradigm although this might not be applicable to Discover immediately. As Solus 3 becomes more widespread it will undoubtedly make deployment easier.

(My experience in schools suggests that the roll out of Discover in schools is sometimes hampered by a misconception that it needs a high specification laptop or PC. I advise schools to apply a little gentle pressure to ICT technicians.)

We both agreed that Discover sometimes disappoints new users because of the limited assessment graphs when the system is first installed. This limitation is understandable (every school has their own assessment system, often developed in school – so there is no way Capita can provide pre-configured graphs). But November 2012 saw the launch of Exams graphs – pre-configured graphs that ‘just work out if the box’ with no setup required. The impact of these graphs is sure to raise interest in the further uses of Discover.

Finally, Phil points out that changes to the way users create new graphs (the Discover Administration Utility) will make the process of creating new graphs much easier.

Next, I wanted to know about SIMS Agora, the new online payments portal for parents. There are already several established products available to schools so what makes this one different? Understandably Phil sees the direct integration with other Sims modules, especially SIMS Dinner Money, as one of its main selling points. But there are also tight parental controls that can be easily self managed by parents, without causing extra work for school staff.


Agora Homepage

Agora Homepage

The SIMS homepage and the ‘pupil teacher view’ will be revamped this year to refresh the clunky, old fashioned homepage we’ve been used to for many years. It will also, much to Phil’s relief, expand to use the full width of the users screen. One innovation will be the new interventions graph, based on a timeline of assessment, behaviour and attendance events – with the capacity to mark the point in time at which certain interventions take place. Various revamped graphs, widgets and an improved messaging system will complete a new look for the SIMS front-end.

A few years ago, the then schools minister, Jim Knight, criticised SIMS as ‘not fit for purpose’. The criticism clearly stung because Jim was recently invited back to Capita to see the latest version. He’s now a convert, and admitted to being impressed by the software (although he still thinks more competition is needed in the school MIS arena!)