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Top five takeaways from the landmark West Sussex deal

/ Damon Hatcher

Now that the dust has settled on the explosive news of Bromcom being awarded an MIS & Finance contract for over 200 West Sussex schools, it got me thinking about the bigger picture and what this deal represents. I’ve worked within a number of Local Authorities in the past, so the news of this procurement was particularly intriguing.

To understand the significance of this decision, let’s roll the timeline back several years. More specifically, 2010, when BECTA, a non-departmental public body funded by the DfE, published their damning report of LA MIS contracts. A prompt shakeup was expected, but many of us in the LA sector didn’t appreciate there were viable alternatives at the time.  

Likewise, there were plenty of internal processes and systems hastily fastened to SIMS with the technical equivalent of sticky tape and a glue gun. For many, a shift to a new MIS or Finance system felt like a no-win situation for LAs and Schools alike. Due to this, many LAs understandably held firm on their belief that SIMS was the system that schools wanted and that there was no desire for change.  

So now, some twelve years later, do LAs still hold this view? The short answer is… It’s complicated! 

Education has moved forward and LA services have seen dramatic shifts due to a whole host of external factors. Academisation has reduced an LA’s immediate sphere of influence and schools are already jumping ship from their incumbent LA MIS contracts, taking things into their own hands. 

West Sussex County Council procured Bromcom as their schoolMIS

You would be forgiven for assuming that there would be even less interest in an LA led mass procurement, but as West Sussex County Council proves, it’s not quite that simple. Here’s my top five takeaways from this pivotal deal that could be a sign of things to come:

We’re seeing a shift in thinking

When we look at the case of WSCC, there are several key reasons behind their decision to explore mass procurement, both from the LA and school angle. 

Firstly, schools were demonstrating a strong demand for change. They needed their MIS to do a lot more than it was capable of and were resorting to workarounds such as spreadsheets or purchasable bolt-ons. What was once a handy admin tool, was now required to serve the entire school community and beyond. Costs were mounting up and simple tasks were becoming achingly laborious. After years of quiet discontent, the Schools Forum came together to mandate change and WSCC took notice. 

If schools took their own individual path, dealing with a mixed economy of systems would present a range of problems for LA services. The data feeds they received from schools were already experiencing issues in at least a third of the sites at any one time. There were often long delays between data entry at the school’s end and the LA being aware of the new information. This presented a considerable challenge when trying to keep track of children removed from roll or missing in education, a statutory and important requirement that helps to keep young people safe from harm. 

Like many LAs, West Sussex have been modernising their IT systems over the years and now SIMS had become a bottleneck. They wanted to progress with new technologies and create better council wide services, but that relied on having reliable and up to date information from schools. Their move to SAP to handle HR and Payroll duties was one such project. WSCC wanted schools to only enter their data once (within their MIS) and for this information to feed into the central HR and Payroll system.  

Without a cloud-based MIS and Finance system featuring a modern API, this was only a pipe dream. But with the school demand for change, coupled with more opportunities to improve council wide services, there was a firm business case to find a new solution for schools. 

West Sussex County Council began the shift of moving to a cloud MIS

The issue of delegated budgets can be overcome

Despite there being a potential desire for change within LAs, delegated budgets were often seen as a showstopper that has prevented many a procurement effort in the past. This isn’t the LA’s money to spend, MIS & Finance costs are generally covered by the schools themselves, so they hold the purse strings. 

Why would an LA go to all this effort when the schools could simply opt-out and choose their own solution regardless? As WSCC has demonstrated, maintained schools value their local network of support and often prefer a collective, aggregate process with other schools within their region. Harnessing their desire for change and giving them a significant voice in the process are some of the essential factors that helped make the WSCC procurement a success and overcome this major hurdle. 

They have proven that it’s possible to achieve the full commitment from schools to make a wholesale change. A key point that other LAs will stand up and take notice of as there had been sentiment within the sector that such transformation was no longer an option. Dare I say that even this humble author believed that delegated budgets would be a sticking point for LAs, but I’m glad to be proven wrong! 

Finance is key

When it comes to finance, most Local Authorities have historically gone down one of two routes. They either have an LA wide finance system which can be used by the schools directly, or they have an internal system for the LA and schools use a standalone FMS. The latter often requires some sort of manual data transfer process to support payroll and the central finance team, but it comes with the benefit of the school having a system designed for the education market. 

In some ways, this can be seen as a separate entity to the MIS. It might be supported by a different team, the data goes to different departments and the number of stakeholders is reduced. However, personnel contractual data is stored within the MIS, and seeing as the majority of a school’s budget is spent on staffing, it’s far more efficient to have a finance solution that can at the very least, extract that data to avoid re-entry.  

In addition, SIMS & FMS are generally wrapped up into one contract, so simply migrating schools to a cloud-based MIS will leave schools footing the bill of their entire incumbent contract just to keep FMS. Not to mention the issues with retaining a server along with the maintenance and support that requires. 

Due to this, an LA led aggregate procurement tends to be for both an MIS and Finance solution. Although it can complicate things further, I see this as a positive. 

From an LA perspective, there’s often an opportunity to ditch the manual data collections such as reports and file exports, replacing them with automated updates that feed directly into council systems. That’s time saved for both the school and LA central team. The West Sussex County Council are already enjoying the benefits of this and are relieved to be saying goodbye to all those burdensome manual processes. 

On the school side, they have a cloud-based finance system that’s accessible from anywhere and most options on the market provide much more relevant and usable analysis than they are used to. Let’s not forget that smaller schools often have a part time business manager that works across multiple establishments or want to provide WFH opportunities where possible. 

West Sussex County Council opted for Bromcom's integrated finance module

MIS suppliers with finance solutions have an edge

Whilst it makes a lot of sense to include Finance in the procurement where an LA wide system isn’t in place, it does complicate things for the potential suppliers as the majority of contenders are purely MIS or purely finance providers. There is the option to separate out this part of the contract so it can be awarded in its own right, but then it might not have the vital data access required to your chosen MIS supplier. The middle ground is the less-than-ideal situation of suppliers partnering up for a tender. 

Although it’s commonplace in tenders, it can be problematic at times. For those of you that remember the days of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), there was a requirement to have the construction firm and the IT Provider tender as one supplier. This meant that a council couldn’t choose the best construction firm for the job then the best IT provider, they had to select the best overall partnership. In some cases, the LA itself was being subcontracted to do the IT and MIS support it had always done, but for less money and higher expectations. 

MIS suppliers have obviously cottoned on to this fact and will be partnered up with their finance supplier of choice, but it does give Bromcom an edge as they are in the unique position of having a fully integrated Finance system within their MIS. This isn’t two systems that are bolted together, the Finance functionality is just like any other module within the MIS, so it reads directly from the personnel data, is accessed within the same interface and all from a single sign-on. 

This is the tip of the iceberg

The West Sussex deal provides an indication as to what’s happening beneath the surface across the nation. The challenges they faced and the desire for transformation are not unique to West Sussex, they are shared across the vast majority of LAs within the country. As WSCC themselves admitted, LAs are often quite risk averse when it comes to unknown territory, so this was a brave leap into the unknown.  

The looming ESS 3-year contracts threatened to de-rail the process, but instead it primed all involved to make the move work within the limited timeframe. Bromcom were tasked with migrating all 200+ schools to their Cloud-MIS & Finance package within a single term. This is no easy task, but remarkably they achieved it. 

WSCC’s bold moves will now give others the confidence to follow suit and progress plans that may have already been rumbling away. The success of the deployment and subsequent data sharing projects will provide further confirmation to LAs, that the switch to a cloud-based solution is not only achievable, but a beneficial undertaking. 

There comes a point when keeping things as they are, becomes a greater risk to an LAs responsibilities than undergoing a transformation project. Many LAs seem to be coming to this conclusion and the discussions I’m hearing about suggest that West Sussex County Council are leading a trend in mass procurement of School MIS and Finance services. Their success is only exacerbating the desire for modernisation, which will have a hugely positive impact on the education community. 

As we look forward, Northern Ireland is the next major procurement on the horizon and arguably one of the most significant IT transformation projects in the UK. The MIS portion will account for over a thousand schools and is part of a wider IT modernisation strategy that will provide an exceptional model for the rest of the UK. Other council leaders will be keen to see the outcome of this landmark project and I have no doubt that it will help inspire and fast track IT modernisation in many LAs. 

/ Damon Hatcher