Birth of the School Management System: Q&A with The Man Behind the Code
Phil Neal’s aversion to paperwork, instinctive talent for coding, and teammates with a flair for marketing just happened to be the perfect storm that created a solution to an age-old problem.
In the 1980’s Phil Neal, a secondary school teacher in the UK unimpressed with the tedious way student data was being collected, set out to create a better way.
“I have a math and physics degree and went on to teach. At university, I took two weeks of coding and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told there wouldn’t be a job for coders (1972) with AI on the way and the computers would do it themselves (insert wry laugh). As more computers began coming into schools, the person doing the work left and I took over. It quickly grew.”
Educators collected data with pencil and paper leaving them with staggering amounts of paperwork and little time left over for a personal life. That was until Phil created a way to collect and manage data that not only eliminated the suffocating amount of paperwork but also did it in a fraction of the time.
“I created a way for the computer to do all the heavy lifting.”
In this interview, Phil Neal discusses his journey from teacher to businessman and how he created the School Information Management System (SIMS), a product that not only got the attention of the UK’s educational system but forever changed the way schools handled data.
Let’s take a closer look at what Phil had to say.
What is SIMS?
“SIMS stands for School Information Management System, which is the oldest school management system in the UK. The word management is quite important because the idea was to not only help admin manage their schools but also help teachers manage their classes.
In the 1980s the government wanted a computer in every secondary school. The government in the states wanted information, so they put the systems into the schools. Systems in the states seemed to be more admin-oriented and more designed originally for the district to grab info from the schools. In the early stages, [SIMS] supplied the local authorities with the information they wanted. Even though SIMS was something that was designed to help teachers with only one computer per school, the teachers weren't using SIMS. The system was intended to appeal to the headteachers, the deputy heads, and the heads of pastoral care.
As more computers went into schools SIMS grew into dealing with things like behavior reports. Teachers could record behavior instances. They could record attendance. Then, they could analyze that data. They started to analyze when the students were absent. They could find out if they (the students) were away with someone else that the teachers hadn’t spotted. They could even find out the times that children were most likely to miss school. You could use SIMS to compare data from school to school. If one school had low attendance and another one had high attendance, you could analyze what the school with the good attendance rate was doing. So, you could use it for data analysis.
In the UK we have timetable systems. In secondary schools, teachers stay and students move around classes. Getting that optimized so you use as few teachers as possible and get children the maximum number of choices that they want to study (was the goal). It was quite a sophisticated task that the computer did very well. You could compare departments as well. The idea was to be able to intervene early with a child struggling with things like attendance or grades to give them the best opportunity at having a successful educational future. Then, it developed into human resources with information on the teachers and their contracts.
Eventually, funding decisions went to the school systems, so schools had to suddenly do their own orders, their own invoices, and calculate staff salaries. The system didn’t do the payroll, but it informed the payroll, so a financial system that went alongside the student system was developed. SIMS developed into communication with the home to alert when children were away and to report credits. Sending school reports grew from just an application for teachers to use into something bigger.
Ultimately, we tried to make it something that would really help a school deal with its business. Admin to management, that is the evolution.”
What inspired you to create a School Management System (SMS)?
“[As a teacher], I hated writing school reports. Exam entries were burdensome and everything was on paper for the teachers. I saw a way of using comment banks to write fairly detailed reports on children and could do it in a tenth of the time. I put codes in for subsections of the reports. It would join the text together, which read very well and delivered far more precision than handwritten reports. It developed into much higher quality reporting. You couldn’t achieve that in the time that it was required unless there was a database behind it. So, I began to create a database and it expanded from there.”
In the 1980s, the government wanted a computer in every secondary school, which became a prime opportunity to build this system.
“In the early days, I was employed by Bedfordshire County as a teacher and wrote all the software on their equipment. They put three computers into three schools and put some software into each school with the intention of employing professional programmers but never got around to it. So, I began programming on their equipment. We had a good relationship and they started promoting what I was doing to other schools.
Back in 1982 (when computers were still cumbersome) I began taking the beastly computer home on nights and weekends and got addicted to coding…my wife was very tolerant! It (the program) grew from just being used in my school to be used in other schools and counties or districts. Because many other types of schools were using it, I was able to think more distantly about the problem.
If you get too close to the problem you can’t see what the variations might be, but because I had lots of schools, I was able to generalize it. It became known that we were doing this and other districts became interested, and it became a business quite quickly. By the end of 1984-85 Is when it took off.
Then IBM and ICL (a British computer software/hardware/services company) began to take an interest in the concept because they could see it would sell computers which surprised me because I was still an amateur. I was still teaching quite a long way into the growth of SIMS. Then the work that I did was augmented by others and SIMS became the most widely used system in the UK. It wasn’t really marketed outside the UK. Around 700 British schools (I left in 2017) do use it outside the UK and it is in use in a number of Caribbean countries.”
With so many different, yet similar systems being used by schools today - what is the difference between an LMS and SIMS?
“LMS (learning management systems) are different. The LMS was designed initially for students to use, mostly just worksheets. It was a massive document store where teachers could send worksheets to students. They have since evolved into something much more effective. They now provide data like how long it takes for a student to answer questions and can identify patterns in things they don’t understand.
They have become more sophisticated. Learning management systems are trying to incorporate more of what the school management system does like taking attendance…a bit of competition there.”
Is there a preference for one system over the other?
“Schools tend to use both. SIMS is so different to start with. All the data is in a single database and any application can get access to it. In the early days, the competitors had a database for attendance, one for behavior, one for grades, and so on. SIMS always held it in a single place. When the LMS came on board we had to have some sort of interoperability between the LMS and the SMS. Mostly they wanted names, dates of birth, and the classes the students took. It was relatively easy to exchange data at that level.”
What has been the biggest evolution of SIMS?
“The user interface is the biggest thing that has evolved over the years. The subtleties are what developed over time. It started with all the basics. You could build a system and then begin to adjust for the subtleties and evolve to cope with specific things like when schools began to mix age groups. When we first started, with the earlier versions, you had to have the training to learn how to use it.
Today’s generation, however, can use smartphone apps and can stumble around and figure it out. With the early version, you had to do training to understand step by step how to use it. The modern systems look better, have better design, and are easier to use. And that’s important. Today it is getting so much better and easier to use.”
Newer school management systems are in the cloud. What about SIMS?
“SIMS is going into the transformation of getting into the cloud. It’s a bit late. But it’s because it’s such a deep system. Much shallower systems are coming in because not all schools use the depth of what's in SIMS. Every ten years or so there is a technology shift--impossible to ignore--and then you have to rewrite everything. That’s when competitive development comes in and produces a paired-down version quite quickly and appeals to a significant number of users. Every ten years or so there’s an opportunity for a new entrant to come in and steal the market share.
SIMS is partially in the cloud and competitors are completely in. That’s its biggest challenge now. SIMS has lost some market share 83% to 73%. As school hardware begins to age they have to make the decision to either buy new hardware or a new MIS that goes in the cloud which means that hardware isn’t required. This is not a totally pressing issue yet because most schools still need servers but will become a pressing issue in the next couple of years.”
How have SIMS impacted schools during COVID?
“The SMS has supported the ability for teachers to continue to deliver good teaching in the midst of COVID. There has been more of an impact on learning systems than teacher systems. You can run SIMS in a pseudo cloud but the actual database is generally located in the school. You can use it from home, but it’s not as good of a solution as it needs to be. Teachers are delivering good online learning for children, but it was weak at the beginning of COVID. A substantial change has taken place. High-quality teaching is what comes first.”
What role did Bedfordshire County have in the development of SIMS?
“There did become quite an issue over ownership. As far as I was concerned I had written it all on my own time and as far as they were concerned, it was written on their equipment. We had to have a compromise on the terms of who owned it. I didn’t particularly want the SIMS system to be privately owned, but at the time the law didn’t allow a local authority to run a business that was profitable. So, we broke away from the local authority and we paid them to compensate them for the fact that we had used their equipment.”
They were left with the perpetual right to use the software in their schools. I always insisted that I had the copyright because it was thousands of hours of my own time--never used local authority time to produce anything on their computer. I did use their time to run the system so when it came to school reports I used to run them to get the reports out to the parents. We grew to almost 160 odd programmers.”
What happened to SIMS once it was sold to Capita?
“In 1994, there were three others with me, and this is part of the success of SIMS. Two people were the ex-local authorities and one an ex-deputy head. When they described what we were doing they spoke a language that was educationally focused. When other schools listened to them talk about the program, they identified with the objectives that we had in producing the software. That combination of me on the programming side and the three others on the marketing side made it successful. They were slightly older than me by 7-10 years and they began to think about their retirement so we voted. I voted against selling and they wanted to sell.
It was sold to Capita in 1994. I didn’t expect to keep any control at all which I was frightened of. For twenty-odd years, although they set challenging targets for us.It was a good home for SIMS. They brought business acumen to the whole idea of what we were doing. It made us more efficient and more conscious of customer satisfaction. It was a good thing in the end.
All things come to an end. Capita just sold to Montague - a new journey and a new owner in 2021.”
Phil, former Capita MD and SIMS creator, is currently retired but working as a trustee of Bookmark, a charity that is trying to encourage children to increase literacy. He advises PE houses on acquisitions and spends the rest of his time at the gym, walking and reading.
You can follow him here on LinkedIn.
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Discover more insights in The Evolution of the School Management System blog series, starting with Part 1 here...