Local Authority support units have had a rough time of late – losing experienced staff and unable to replace them as local government put the brakes on recruitment, or simply outsourced to unsympathetic private sector companies. But at the recent SIMS Conference for Local Authorities and Support Units, I met with many enthusiastic and committed representatives of local support units in England and Wales.

One such local authority is Bexley, in London. I spoke to Jason Tobias, who manages their local team, about Sims Agora, Capita’s new online payments system. Over the last few months Jason has been piloting the introduction of the payments portal in a local primary school.

As with all the best Local support Units, Bexley were led by their schools, not the LA or wider council, responding to requests from their schools for more information. This led to a joint presentation by the Bexley team and Capita, a representative pilot group of schools then identified the pros and cons of the system and compared Agora to competitor systems.

The pilot group identified some key advantages:

  • Seamless integration with the school’s SIMS system and SIMS Dinner Money module
  • Reduced cash on school site will in time, reduce insurance costs as well as the time staff spend counting money and taking banking to their local branch
  • Ease of support and maintenance
  • Parents and schools can track payments easily – and avoid the ‘walk of shame’ to the school office to pay outstanding debts!
  • Schools have the opportunity to ‘sell’ more uniforms, school trips and tickets
  • Parents can make small, regular payments to help budget for ‘big ticket’ items like school trips.

Surprisingly, internet access was not an issue for the pilot schools, most parents now having smartphone access to the internet. When I spoke to Duncan Hield, Agora’s product manager, he also mentioned the safeguarding aspects of using an online payments system – less money is held by pupils and by the school, reducing the likelihood of bullying or theft.

Bexley have signed up nearly a dozen primary schools and are hoping to sign up another dozen over the next few months with the roll out starting from September 2013.

Jason’s tips for other support units? Start with a single year group, he recommends, and get staff and parents on-board. And use all the help that Capita SIMS can provide – plug into their skills and experiences in other authorities.