Arbor show and tell: what’s new and what we’re working on
Find out more about Arbor’s product vision and how this guides what they are developing next in their Management Information System (MIS).
Hilary Aylesworth, Head of Product, Arbor
Overview – Arbor Show and Tell: What’s new and what we are working on
Hilary talks you through the exciting new features and products that Arbor will be launching in the future, leaving you with lots of interesting updates to share with your team at school. Hilary also updates you on the MIS improvements and releases you can expect to see this term in response to the expertise and advice received from schools, MATs, and partners.
Hilary Aylesworth is Head of Product at Arbor, the UK’s fastest-growing MIS. Hilary’s job is to deliver the vision outlined by Arbor CEO James Weatherill (insert hyperlink to James’ page) and to find pacey and high-quality ways to turn that vision into products to be used in schools and trusts.
Hilary is passionate about technology and education, formerly producing courses to teach coding and STEAM (‘Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths – breaking down traditional science versus art barriers), enabling students to conduct experiments, solve problems and design prototypes.
Educator, product leader and cognitive scientist by education, prior to Arbor, Hilary led education initiatives, program and product development for Teachers College, Columbia University, the City College of New York (CUNY), Teach First and SAM Labs. She’s interested in how different domain expertise can intersect to facilitate innovation and therefore looks forward to the day her expansive knowledge of science fiction can inspire something useful.
After more than 40 years of helping our customers make more effective and extensive use of SIMS, in 2021 we took the decision to become an Advanced Arbor Accredited support and training partner. This means we that if customers choose to change their MIS, we can now offer services for Arbor, alongside our SIMS services which of course we continue to invest in.
We now support more than 30 schools across the south-west and our Arbor customer base is growing rapidly across the country as Arbor continues to grow.
At Scomis, we help our customers across the country make more extensive and effective use of their Management Information Systems (MIS). We aim to help you exploit SIMS to its full potential to ensure that it is fully embedded across your school or multi academy trust. In doing so we help you achieve consistency of use to deliver efficiency gains, reduce staff workload, realise best value, and ultimately drive forward school improvement.
Find out more about our services that could help you get more out of Arbor MIS:
For help when you need it most – Scomis MIS Support Services
ScomisLive is recognised by ISBL as Continued Professional Development (CPD)
Offering over 20 hours of appropriate learning content for School Business Leaders. ISBL members can register their attendance against their annual CPD commitment.
Other related topics
Find out how Arbor can make a difference to your school or trust today, and more about Arbor’s future direction of travel with CEO of Arbor, James Weatherill.
Find out more about moving your MIS to Arbor with CEO and Executive Head Teacher of The Cornerstone Academy Trust, Jonathan Bishop.
Find out more about ParentPay (the new owners of ESS SIMS) and their plans for Next Generation SIMS.
HILARY: I am the head of product at Arbor. What my official bio does not mention, and I feel that it is important to mention, is that I once was a teacher – a head of department and a school leader in New York City. This is to say that I know in my bones what it is like – to work in a school, to work in a district, to work in a state department, under certain policies and under certain constraints and with resources; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So, I understand the challenges and difficulties that we face and all the possibilities and opportunities available to us. I bring this experience with me as I consider the vision and the direction of our products at Arbor. Our desire is to make the people we work with feel equipped, but also excited about our products and what we can do for them. And our company mission is to transform the way schools work. That is at the heart of what we try to do.
What’s new and what are we working on?
So much has changed, and is still changing, in the education landscape – COVID, increased use of technology, trends in cognitive theory, and numerous other factors are shaping how we are called to respond in policy, in curriculum, and in day‑to‑day operation. I would like to flip this concept on its head and start by asking, amidst all this change, what is not changing. I can offer my perspective on that question. The phrase “it takes a village” probably articulates this best. It is never a single class or a teacher or an experience that shapes student performance and ultimately their success; it is a whole orchestra of things conspiring together to make sure that that child does not fall through the cracks. It is people gathered around problems.
I often think of it as being like the Marvel Universe. Those movies will start off with Iron Man or Spider-Man solving a problem. But this is then ramped up into the entire crew of Avengers saving the universe together. So it is that aligning of problems and the collaboration of all our individual efforts to solve those problems. It really makes a big difference. To help us get there, the assumption in the first case is that we agree there is a problem to solve. The best way to articulate that is that schools are expected to deliver top-notch outcomes in an ever-changing landscape with little resource or time to do so.
If I were to call out one specific thing that is just key in our product vision, it is collaboration. It is about enabling the players and the heroes in the education universe to come together and to solve those big problems together, doing our various parts of the puzzle. At Arbor we think about this from our product suite in three distinct ways. These are what we call our product development pillars and this is where we focus the lion’s share of our effort.
Arbor’s product development pillars
The first of those pillars is “meaningful data and information”. It sounds obvious, but this one is all about driving through strong collaboration – it will make you more effective and ultimately support you to collaborate across the community.
The second is “school-focused design”. This is about time savings, but also about thinking when you need the information – at what time of year and what time of day – and bringing that to you very clearly through simple means. This ultimately makes your role more efficient, as you can do your day‑to‑day tasks quickly and get on to the real work – supporting your students.
The last one, which is really the cornerstone to all of this, is “getting the community together”. This is not just about you working in your department and in your school. It is about pulling together the full community of your map and your primaries and secondaries within that map. It is about connecting you with parents and students and giving you the right tools, whether through Arbor directly or our strategic partner integrations. As I said, it takes a village, and we do recognise that. It is evidence‑based insight.
Looking at the principles in detail
To examine principle number one in more detail: it is all about giving the right data to the right person at the right time. This is crucial to what it is we do. This is one of the design principles that we think about when we are looking at putting in practice that product vision. Let me explain some of the features involved. When you sign into Arbor, you are met with a variety of functions including a top-line navigation bar which has all sorts of features such as student alerts and school notices. It has your to-do list laid out and is fully customisable. You can also view your key performance indicators, which is incredibly helpful.
There are two areas which you can customise using various filters. The “whole school” option is exactly what it sounds like: you get to see the stats for an entire school, and then you can cut and change that by using contextual data or by isolating whatever groups or performance measures you are interested in. Then there is the “my students” section: maybe you are a phase leader in a primary school, and you also have a teaching load. You want to see certain groups of students and you want to be able to track particular things with regard to those groups of students. All of that can be customised on your home page so that when you log into Arbor you can immediately see the information relevant to you.
Supporting collaboration with action and insight
This, for us, is a major key point of our story: supporting you to collaborate better by giving you strong actionable insight. Another key part of this I would like to highlight is this notion of action on insight: not only being able to see the information but being able to act on it. They curation of those key performance indicators is key here: I have both the statutory responsibility to make sure that there are interventions set up across my phase – and that teachers are clear that systems and structures around it to be able to sign those students up to those interventions – and on top of that, I have to be mindful with my headteacher and my deputy head how money is being spent in support of that. That is one of my remits and there is a whole variety of actions available to me in either role.
So, if I am a phase leader and I am wanting to look after a key group of students, for example, I have all kinds of actions around setting interventions and creating a custom group. If I am a teacher, I am also able to look at various groups of students. Maybe I want to think about the relationship between how pupil premium has been spent alongside how students are doing with the suggested mark, and track that more carefully. These are the kinds of things that you can get to directly from our home page and that your KPIs can work directly in support of.
The other thing to highlight is the cohort mark level analysis. A key area is the top-line analysis available in Arbor to allow you to drill in to do further investigation. Two areas we have evolved are cohort and mark level analysis. They are currently in beta testing, to be released shortly. It is what it sounds like: being able to look at dynamic, real-time data on a cohort of students of interest to you, or to do mark level analysis as you need within your role. It is incredibly helpful. What you see on the screen is a grade distribution area to work in addition to the top-line analysis available to you on Arbor. And this piece is supportive as we want to look at progress over time.
How tech helps people collaborate
That is a big thing about what is going to help us to understand and to collaborate better: giving you top-line views. Where are students at now? Where are they likely to be in the future, given what we are seeing here? A big bet we are making in Arbor in terms of product development is around collaboration. Tech is fantastic, but not if it fails to enable the people who utilise it to work better together. That is what we believe.
We have a feature known as the custom mark sheet, which allows you to set up a standardised mark sheet for a course, set of students, or set of teachers, with key contextual information – the SEN, your EL, the premium pupils, or filtering by ethnicity. This allows you to do a whole range of things relating to performance data – maybe you want to bring in rank order or look at predicted grades.
Another exciting feature allows for tracking within specific sets. Maybe I set out from my Year 11 Maths students a mark sheet for all staff to be able to see but, for sets within that group, I want to track certain things for teachers to have more information. Maybe I am interested in the relationship between the COVID absences and rank order, for example – so I want to bring in the data. In Arbor, you can take your custom reports you designed and bring the fields directly into the mark sheet. What this means is that you can bring together the data professionals in the schools and Trust with your teaching staff and the SLT. They can design the right view to monitor progress for that group of children.
How people use our products
We recently did a webinar showing this to customers. One exam officer working in a secondary school had an idea to use the customer mark sheet functionality to bring in all kinds of exam information specific to a particular set. He was talking about using the functionality in a sense we did not necessarily envision, which was exciting. We are proud of the way we are working together with customers to build things that are in service of their reels, focusing on the problems we can solve.
The other thing that we worked on in release is a concept called policy pushdown in assessments. It works on the concept of a seed school. So, you might have an assessment set up in one of your schools – it has gone great this year, you are able to collect the information within the school and use it to impact on progress for students – and you want to take the best practice to share it over the network of primary schools. What you can do is to share the assessment with MAT MIS and MAT MIS can decide who gets access. So that they can bring it into several institutions – all, if you choose – and it can include target judgments, target rules, grade scales, and so on. What this means is that you have a standardised approach off the bat to share best practice; where we see a bright spot, let us shine a light on it to ensure there is room to grow. That is what this is about.
The other benefit is that when standardising some of these things, that clear analysis is available in real time. The minute the teacher enters the data it is available to you. If what you want is to design a bell curve for how the students are performing, the information is to hand to enable you to do that. This is what policy pushdown supports and enables. And it helps to support the conversation that Trusts and the local authorities are having with schools such as: what is our policy? How are we thinking of these things as individual schools’ institutions? Are there some things we feel everyone can benefit from? If you are on a hybrid approach, we can do some things distinct and some together – the functionality can support whatever you are on the growth train to try to become standardised.
The next one is about being able to design tailored reporting. In Arbor we have a custom report writer – I am perhaps biased, but I think that it is the best in the sector in terms of reporting capabilities. We recognise that people have a need to bring in additional tooling around reporting, so they may be reporting in a whole host of ways – for example how they are preparing report cards. We introduced a notion of being able to tailor the reporting from third-party tools – or even from Microsoft Word if that is where you like to do it – bring it in to Arbor, identify if you want to share it on the parent portal or student portal, and to be able to send it out from there; that keeps all the student progress information central to you in Arbor so you have a great record of what has gone on with the students and the interactions with the parents.
And we are seeing bright spots with this tailored reporting capability we offer. We have primary schools who are using it for weekly attendance certificates, and secondary schools thinking of using it to share with parents the learner reflections that they do with Google Docs. Ways to utilise above and beyond what we initially imagined. A testament to the community of the folks that we work with, and their brilliance gets the most out of Arbor.
The benefits our collaborators are seeing
Another fun project we worked on recently at a school in Bexleyheath is a learner engagement piece. The assistant principal, Joseph, called me several months ago to explain the fantastic stuff that they were doing in learner engagement. We had a look around to think about how to bring the great innovative work to Arbor so others could benefit. What we did was look at the relationship between attendance and behaviour and the learner engagement piece. So, we have designed some well-crafted functionality in support of this to give the parents that opportunity to know what is happening on the ground with my kid today: how did they engage in the lessons? And he has a thoughtful scale of engagement and all the different pieces that go into that. Initially, he was taking two to three hours to pull together learning engagement ports in the small hours of the evening after the day job. We were able to cut out that time and to make it a ten-minute synch to send this information out via the parent portal and to ensure that the teaching staff had access to the record of information delivered to children and their guardians. That was an incredibly exciting piece of functionality. And it made it easier for Joseph to collaborate closely with parents and frees him up to think about embedding this further. And so, he is now in conversation with the Trust staff, to think how he can bring more to this policy across a range of secondary schools, and that is the work that he should be focused on – the strategy piece. How to do more with this? How to shine a light to share this best practice out further?
The learning ecosystem
The other thing to highlight as a principle that we have at Arbor in terms of putting this into practice is that we are very interested in transforming what we call the ecosystem. So we very much recognise we are not an island; we work in an ecosystem with partners – including Scomis and also API partners, many of which we have integrations with – to enable you guys to get the best out of their tooling and ours. So, what we are interested in doing is thinking carefully about how we can work more closely and open up the ecosystem so that people can get the most out of it. The real purpose of that is ensuring there is a tight collaboration not only between yourselves and the school, staff, and parents, but between us and the ecosystem of folks that work in supporting you. It is enabling you guys to do a working and sharing role; working together to collaborate well in supporting you guys to do your job better. I wanted to speak to this to highlight a couple of integrations that we have got live in Arbor now.
How integrations can produce better results
We are currently working on integration with iTrent, a large HR provider. The measure of what we are trying to do here is to save people time; to streamline the HR processes to have more data accuracy. To give an example of the benefit of a larger Trust, United Learning, utilising iTrent, one colleague said that they had 980 new starters. That is unconscionable – the scale of setting them all up on iTrent and Arbor separately is too much admin work. It would likely take them weeks to get all the information and contracts together. The different HR processes to put in place such as payroll and all that key information that needs feeding through the systems – they can do it at the click of a button. Accurate and ready to go from day one – which ultimately gives people the freedom to focus on what matters, which is a great induction for the new staff, to get them excited about what they are doing.
Another one we have is budgeting integration with access. You can bring in and synch up the key budgeting details so that there is no need to do a double entry; all the information is ready to go at the flick of a button, upgraded and synched. And the update of learning platforms has been tremendous over the last couple of years.
We want to recognise your use to ensure we have a smart integration. This is what we are thinking about. It is about the timescale, the automatic support with a group to help smooth the way and to provide support. This is out and wide and ready and we are deepening it more and more every day. The last thing to touch on is the principle here. We believe greatly in providing people with support. If you are an Arbor customer, there are a variety of ways to contact us – chat support, a slew of articles on the help centre. We are committed when we release something that the article is updated with clear instructions around it. We have a great help centre team, and excellent training staff who all come from former education backgrounds.
What our support can offer you
So, the support that we want to provide you is not just about getting you up and running. It is about supporting you to get the most from Arbor. Taking it to the next step to say, “we have got assessment up and running – what is next? What about the custom mark sheet? Using more of the reporting capabilities?” We recognise that people need that support in a variety of ways which is why we work closely with Scomis and others to provide it. Support is a big part of what we do, particularly because people are so time-poor, and we are very proud of the offer that we put to folks.
The last thing I want to talk about is how we gather up customer feedback. It is something that I am asked all the time. How can I feed in? How can I tell you more of what I would like to see? And importantly, how to prioritise the information you give us? We have a big problem to solve; there are lots of ways to contribute to that. How to decide the best ways? We have a digital channel, and we also have the NPS survey and user groups that people can join. The point and the purpose of it all is to create a transparent, defensible roadmap to help paint clearly for schools, Trusts, and local authorities what it is that we are driving at within that term. So, we update it on a friendly basis to look to make the impact by phase and think about the principles that I put to you before to help us to make decisions.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we needed to be prepared to support the schools in the here and the now. Not always a medium-term to long-term focus in terms of what we are doing, but to make sure that we are ready to go with whatever situation arises and the innovation from that, which was fantastic. It was like we had a wonderful COVID dashboard designed for schools to be able to track their staff and student absences. We are very proud to have supported customers through what was and continues to be a tricky time. So, I wanted to emphasise that part of it as well.
I have been asked a couple of questions. One is about budgeting and working with HESS. The question is: do you have plans to develop timetabling on finance software yourselves? We do not currently have plans to develop these directly; it is worth mentioning that I think we work with the best timetabling software out there, and we have great integrations and in-depth integrations with both. We are planning additional financial integrations; the other thing to say here is that I think while other MIS providers may say that they do it all – the timetabling and the finance and so on – I caution people that doing the depth of detail required in those offers, such as timetabling to the extent it is needed, is extremely challenging. We like to think at Arbor we are great with our bread and butter, and we want to bring you the best possible solution to scale. If you are a school that is growing, or you have a unique or a complex challenge, we want to focus on that. It is worth mentioning that the timetabling partners are fully supported with a staff of folks working day and night to ensure that it is really the best service for you. I think the same thing on the finance side. I hope I am not speaking out of turn by saying that when you make a decision about which MIS to choose, I do not think that finance is a core part. Thinking of the benefit that we are providing at Arbor, it is about that time savings piece that is bringing staff together; the impact to students; the fact that there is something at Arbor for every single staff member at your school – and the finance piece is a faint part of that constellation. We recognise it – we want people to focus on what we are great at.
The final question is from someone looking to review their MIS. They want to know, if they were planning to change their software, what advice I would give about how best to manage change and what are the most common pitfalls to avoid. That is a big question. What I would say is: when looking at which MIS provider is going to be the best, first things first, where are we trying to improve? How are we trying to address the challenges and how can technology better help to us do that? Understanding what an MIS can do for you, in terms of really joined up and clear workflows, time savings, and clear actionable insight, is what you need to think about to make the best decision. I would also say that it is important that there is a robust team of folks developing the product actively. Knowing that there is a very clear listening ear for you and people who are working actively on that product to improve it is critical. We are in an ever-changing landscape, and you want a product to react to that. With the right tooling, it is necessary for the conditions that we are under. I encourage people looking across the landscape to think carefully about the value that an MIS can add. For us, that is about the collaboration factor. We feel that your people are the measure of how well your school or your Trust or your local authority do. For us, it is about enabling them as best as we can.
pm. Thank you.