Can multiple MIS work across a MAT?

I am often asked if it can be effective strategy to work with two different Management Information Systems (MIS) across a multi academy trust (MAT), owing to the fact this is a setup I have managed before. The truth is, until recently, I was never able to answer that question with any recent experiences, or with any rational impartiality, because quite frankly I thought SIMS was poor!

My lack of recent experience on this subject changed recently when a new school joined our family of academies using another MIS, in this case Arbor.

Using another MIS

My last practical experience of using a MIS, other than Bromcom, was in 2016, however, both were non-cloud so probably thinking back now they weren’t the best of experiences compared to the more modern MIS. Pre-2016 (or pre-cloud!) we used a combination of Facility CMIS and SIMS across our estate and while my hands-on experience of using more than one MIS was certainly out of date, my view that there are little positives from having two systems hadn’t changed.

Although, I do wonder if I would think differently now using those systems, especially on areas like aggregated MAT data, given the advances in data consolidation through APIs into data warehouses, or indeed like new solutions like Bromcom’s Vision-X which allows you could bring together data into a rapidly improving piece of software. We’re now in a position that no matter the MIS, there is scope to collate and analyse your MAT data in one place and crucially, report effectively on it.

My lack of recent experience on this subject changed recently when a new school joined our family of academies using another MIS, in this case Arbor. In the past we would have looked to change the MIS once a school starts with us, and there are many reasons for this. One of those reasons is consistency along with, what is more pertinent, the quality of the MIS being used. On the latter point, typically we would inherit a legacy MIS like SIMS, which in my view, is no longer fit for purpose and is an extremely expensive solution when you look at total cost of ownership (TCO). With that in mind, we would look to bring in, as part of a measured change management process, a modern cloud MIS, which for us is Bromcom.

When looking at consistency, because we have developed a level of standardisation in our approach to data management across our multi-phase academies, coupled with the fact that we also manage first line support internally, it has always seemed to make sense to have one system. By having one system, we can ensure that we are able to offer dedicated, and I would argue, expert support and guidance to our schools and help them to get the very best out of their system.

This case was different though, the new school used Arbor, a MIS with a good reputation for having a great customer support and customer accreditation program and a particularly strong reputation in primary schools, of which this school is.

Going back to my earlier point regarding the improvements to APIs and getting data into a data warehouse, we were pleased to see how good the API into Arbor is, with data really easy to access meaning that we can view all our data as part of our self-developed MAT wide Power BI analytics. I think on reflection if we had been able to do this with CMIS and SIMS back in the day, my view on using two system might have been more positive.

So, we have solved the access to data issues, we have a consolidated MAT view and a modern cloud MIS with a really helpful support team, surely, I would be all in favour of using two, or even more than two MIS systems in a MAT? Well, actually no, I am still not convinced.

Now I have made no secret that in my opinion Bromcom is, pound for pound, the best MIS on the market. If you look at the efficiencies it brings, the usability and functionality of Bromcom, or for want of a better phrase; it’s key features, then I do think it is the right solution for schools and the best solution for schools.

All cloud MIS are pretty much the same yes? Definitely not!

When looking at key features, there are some parts of Arbor that are lacking, particularly around assessments and accessing data.

Peter Smith, my colleague and MIS and Data Analyst summed this up recently;

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I have in the recent 12 months had hands-on experience of working and supporting Arbor for our primary school. Having had a good experience with Bromcom previous 5 years I can clearly see that Arbor’s assessment framework cannot provide us with the level of flexibility and sophistication that exists within Bromcom.

Bromcom allows us to create completely customised assessments, with total control of Assessment types, grade set and collections we are able to collect as much information as we want as often as we want. Similarly, the flexibility of the behaviour module in Bromcom is completely customisable to individual needs.

The critical advantage though is that Bromcom’s assessments allow us to create built in calculations, using multiple criteria, that update results as data is entered. Reducing the need to process data outside of the system before or after entry.

I also think Arbor would really struggle to cope with our secondary assessment requirements in much the same way as with our primary school.

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Ultimately whatever our schools want, that’s what we deliver. We do all we can to make the system work for them, and never make them toil to make the system work. We still have a secondary school using Arbor and so far they are happy with it and we continue to make it work for them. However, the lack of functionality in assessments remains a concern as this has yet to be tested in anger.

I would also add in the defence of Arbor, and indeed any MIS out there, there are many things that can go wrong with how it is used in a school. Often, it can be the MIS itself just not being up to the job, sometimes it is a cases of “you don’t know what you don’t know” and therefore the system isn’t used to its full potential or lastly that the product hasn’t been rolled out and embedded properly. I think in this particular case, it is a little bit of all of the above.

It’s also interesting to see how leaders are now asking for Bromcom when they employed in a new school. We have become accustomed in schools up and down the country to seeing new Heads demand that SIMS and its plethora of (required) 3rd party systems were implemented so they have a blanket of familiarity in their new post. Now we are seeing leaders asking for Bromcom to be put in their school, which is good to see.

Lee Robertson, Principal of HPAC said:

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When I became Principal at HPAC, I was interested to see how Arbor would fare as a MIS solution within our academy, having had a good experience Bromcom in two of my previous schools. It became apparently quite quickly that, whilst possible to do the day to day processes needed of a MIS, Arbor lacked the broad functionality of Bromcom, particularly around assessments and accessing data to track pupils using our well-established analysis processes. I also find that the end user experience is more robust in Bromcom and find that admin efficiencies can be achieved with minimal fuss. Bromcom have reacted really positively to this change request, working evenings and weekends to get this project off the ground and we can’t wait to get started very soon.

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I don’t buy into the thinking that Bromcom only works for secondaries and Arbor for primary, in fact we are proof it would seem that isn’t the case. Our primary leaders are particularly excited to see the impact that the Bromcom Primary Tracker will have, both as a way of collecting assessment data and crucially on analysing it.

Conclusion

So back to my original question. Can you use two different MIS across a MAT/LA? The first question is why you would want to do this, unless you have a good reason. Like most systems, there are compelling reasons to have one common MIS which could be for practical, technical and of course economic reasons. Even after overcoming these obstacles, there needs to be two complete MIS solutions on the market that are as broad and functional as Bromcom, and until that happens, I would say that for now, I would just recommend using one system, and that system is Bromcom.

Married father of 2. Yorkshireman, Head of Data&MIS @harrisfed. Chair of Govs, Decent cook, half baked Masterchef contestant. WHUFC Fan. Views are entirely mine