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The background

The Learners’ Trust started out as a small Academy Trust of just three schools in 2016 in an area of high deprivation in Rotherham. Very quickly a number of schools across Derbyshire reached out to join the Trust, and within six years the Trust now has 18 schools across Derbyshire and Rotherham. With seventeen Primary Academies and one Special School, the Trust supports around 3,500 pupils and over 400 staff.

RM was a known brand to the Trust senior leadership team, based on the company’s longevity in the sector – initially as a hardware manufacturer, but increasingly as a technology partner to schools. That said, that was all it was to this Trust – a known name – at least in 2016.

School Management Information Systems (MIS)

Schools cannot exist without a reliable MIS system – to keep track on pupils, on their performance, and on their wellbeing. Whilst for many the software that runs it is taken for granted, to individual users there is a world of difference between the various systems on offer – which in turn can make a big impact on how easy it is for staff to use it to do their job:

“Working in a school is hard enough – what we want is to make life easier for our teachers and admin staff. We have a three-click rule to using technology – sadly SIMS can be unwieldy when seeking to find what you are looking for”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

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A good MIS needs to work at a variety of levels – at school level it needs to cope with simple (but critical) tasks such as taking the register, with Learners’ Trust providing staff with iPads to make the task as simple as possible. It also needs to link with other school software – such as safeguarding systems – and ultimately needs to be quick, efficient and accessible to all:

“At Trust level, a good MIS is all about aggregating data – to identify trends and help us ask better questions. Entering data into our MIS is now quite slick and getting it out is also pretty good. Where it becomes really powerful is when the system tells us when and where to intervene”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

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Deciding on common systems across the Trust

Like many schools at that time, most schools in the Trust relied on SIMS for their Management Information System (MIS), although a small number of the Derbyshire schools had switched to RM Integris a few years before. As the Trust set out to simplify, coordinate and bring consistency for the new Trust management team, they looked to bring all schools onto the same MIS – with SIMS seemingly the obvious choice, as it was the one used by the original Rotherham schools in the Trust.

When they looked into the process, it quickly became apparent that SIMS was several thousand-pounds a year more expensive – per school – than RM Integris was to run, with a similar cost to transition back. It also became apparent that the schools operating RM Integris were very happy with the set-up and were reluctant to move backwards:

“We listened to the schools themselves. Whilst those already on RM Integris would have switched back to SIMS if we had asked them, when we looked at the costs involved, it became a no brainer”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

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But it wasn’t just about the cost (although that was important). Nor was it just about the functionality (but again, this was a key determinant). For a Trust of this size there was a third consideration – reputation:

“As a Trust we have to demonstrate that our schools are better by being part of our family. We could not afford to make a mistake on something as critical as their MIS. But we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and with most schools only having used SIMS, they had minimal experience of what they were missing”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

On that basis, the Trust were comfortable recommending that all schools consolidated onto RM Integris as their MIS:

“The obvious decision was staring us in the face – we could unify around a less expensive, more modern and well-liked MIS, or we could ask our schools to operate something that was much more clunky, more expensive to run, and was a source of continual grumbles. We went for the former helping all of our schools transition from SIMS to RM Integris”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

Making the switch

Despite being convinced that this was the right decision, it was not without risk – notably the project management of changing systems, coupled with the necessary training that that would entail:

“We bought into a support contract – via our partners at Derbyshire Local Authority. This was very helpful, as all our questions were swiftly answered. We also set up a ‘Camp Fire’ support network where school administrators could ask each other questions – a form of self-help, which has worked very well”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

Fear of the unknown can often be a reason not to do anything, but as in life, this is rarely a good policy. In the case of Learners’ Trust, they just went for it. They received a data extraction from SIMS that integrated seamlessly with RM Integris, they received some initial training from RM, but in the main it was those who had used the system before who trained those who hadn’t.

“In my role I was somewhat removed from the onboarding process, but the fact that I wasn’t made aware of any issues shows how well it went. We had no downtime, we received all the support we needed from RM, and actually the system itself is very intuitive so that people quickly got the hang of it”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

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Sharing best practice

  1. Do not be scared to revisit your initial decision – for Learners’ Trust, the obvious decision would have been to move the new schools to the same MIS that their existing schools were using, but when they looked into the two systems, and listened to the schools themselves, they realised there was a better option out there.
  2. Education is hard enough – reduce complexity wherever you can – Learners’ Trust set out from the start to unify systems and processes Trust-wide. This was especially the case with software, and the desire to have systems that talked to one another was key. This starts from “Single Sign On” functionality and maps right across to standard reports and cross-school training sessions and help functions.
  3. Functionality is key – whilst simplicity is important, things have to be fit for purpose. In the case of an MIS system, you need something that staff feel comfortable using, that is reliable, and gives you the actionable insight you need to do your job.
  4. At Trust level, reputation is everything – there are many pressures facing the leadership teams of our Academy Trusts, so giving them the tools to do the job is key to equipping them to focus on what they do best – “enriching lives by enabling the best learning experiences possible, provided through the best possible teaching” (which just happens to be the mission for Learners’ Trust). RM Integris is second only to SIMS in market-share, and is the number one cloud-based MIS.
  5. Look to the future – the technology infrastructure at Learners’ Trust is entirely cloud-based, so having an MIS system that is also cloud-based is critical to implementing a true “anytime anyplace” offer.

Five years on

Learners’ Trust moved the Rotherham schools onto RM Integris in 2017, and since then things have gone smoothly, with new functionality improving life for all.

Whilst there is no certainty what the future will look like, what is for sure is that a reliable MIS will be the bedrock for all the really exciting applications that a technologically-enabled Trust – such as Learners’ Trust – can focus upon as they seek to deliver their vision for the children of Rotherham and Derbyshire.

“RM Integris does what it is supposed to – I do not regret the decision to switch for a minute. I feel supported by the team at RM – they frequently ask my opinion about the roadmap for the future – and I genuinely believe I am being listened to”.

Matt Freeston, Chief Executive Officer

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