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Moving your MIS to Arbor: Cornerstone Academy Trust

Cornerstone Academy Trust switched their MIS to Arbor in April 2021. This forward-thinking trust embarked upon a journey of radical change, accomplished smoothly with the help of their trusted ICT partner, Scomis. 

Jonathan Bishop, CEO & Executive Head Teacher, Cornerstone Academy Trust. Michael Heard, Education Business Partner, Scomis

Overview – Moving your MIS to Arbor 

Gain an insight into how a trust can transform their use of MIS, find out about the lessons learnt, pick up tips on how best to roll out wholesale change, and find out about the key benefits of working collaboratively with a specialist MIS services provider, Scomis. 

Jonathan Bishop, CEO & Executive Head Teacher of Cornerstone Academy Trust steps you through the trust’s vision for MIS, their consequent move to Arbor, and why it was imperative that the valued partnership the trust already had with Scomis transitioned with them. They share the positive results that have been achieved within the trust since the move and their future key priorities. 

Other related topics and resources 

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 how Arbor Head of Product, Hilary Aylesworth, is making James’s vision a reality.

Find out more about ParentPay (the new owners of ESS SIMS) and their plans for Next Generation SIMS.

Find out more about how Cornerstone is harnessing technology to collaborate across the trust and develop a supportive learning environment with the trust’s Head of Education, David James and Deputy Head of School, Anthony Lees. 

Next steps

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 

Contact us for more information

Further reading and reference material

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Session transcript

Michael Heard talks to Jonathan Bishop about moving your MIS to Arbor


MICHAEL: As a senior leader at Scomis, it is an important part of my role to work closely with schools and Trusts to understand challenges to work with you to help you address them and to ensure that we respond to the changes needed by continue, improving and developing our services. What is the Trust’s main driver for changing the MIS?

JONATHAN: We spent many years looking at the management information system. It was an interesting debate for us. In many senses, data is only as good as the data you put in. Often, we were putting data in the MIS to get it out to use with other platforms and we were not getting the best out of our management information system.

There were two main things we were looking for. One was that power as a Trust, with multiple schools, to have one easy route to navigate – so we wanted it in a web browser, accessible from anywhere, Trust-wide. And we were in a hosted SIMS environment with independent databases. Therefore, we were looking for something easier to access and more intuitive – something that would ensure that the staff embraced and got the best out of it. I think secondly, what we were looking to do was really get the best out of the tool that we had in our hands. It was more than just a database that admin people put information into that we extracted for other purposes.

When I say “other purposes” I mean generating a class list; populating the library software; populating an online learning resource. Whilst that integration with the MIS is important by third-party software, there are many powerful tools in a MIS to empower the staff to operate successfully. So, finding the right MIS that was Cloud-based, Trust-wide, and easy to use with the powerful tools was the driver that we were on to make the change over to Arbor.

MICHAEL: As part of making the change, you must have spent a lot of time researching other MISs, so, how would you know that Arbor was the one? What was the tick box to say “Arbor is what we need”?

JONATHAN: We did spend a lot of time researching this. We had lots of suppliers visiting us. We went to the Bett Show and spoke to lots of people and had lots of demonstrations. We looked at it alongside the people that use it day in, day out – looking at it through the lens of the administrators, how it would change their workflows. We looked at it through the eyes of leaders: the data that they wanted to access, and how quick it was to access that information in order to make decisions. We also looked at data in the classroom – how it would empower the teachers and the TAs. We looked at many products, and there are real similarities in many of them but often massive of differences in how they do things.

Most people, when they know a system, are reluctant to change. When you ask when the right time is to change, retrain staff, and phase in new ideas, the answer you often get is to go slowly or not to do it at all. When we made the decision, we took four schools in an Easter holiday, migrated everything, and started from scratch. Although it was difficult, it was the best thing to do. All the staff have found it so easy to use that they liked the functionality within it. And that migration honestly should have made sooner – we took too long over that decision.

MICHAEL: So, when you made your decision, and you talked about going at pace, there is a lot to implement. How did you get the staff onboard? You said about getting them onboard about their requirements but how did you make the change? What was the journey?

JONATHAN: The key to change management is good quality training. That training sometimes can be discreet, as in theoretical: let me demo, in a demo environment. You cannot be immersed in the real environment, making real change. So, sometimes we want to phase things; to go at the pace of the people. I get that. It was certainly not our approach. My approach was, “we are going overnight, this is what it is going to be.” But to support people, then in that new environment and the new ways of working, meant that we unpick the problems. It meant that we were able to really get the best out of the system for what we wanted when it could not work. And I guess that is where having the support through yourselves and from Arbor on that transition was key.

MICHAEL: I believe you did your transition during lockdown as well. So, you made it even harder on yourself as obviously the evidence was obtained virtually, and your schools are not all together?

JONATHAN: We have four schools in the Trust. It is a small Trust. But the school that is furthest away is over an hour away. But we are in that blended environment as we have now come to call it. So, using the technology to work collaboratively, we could bring the four schools together to act as one. That is really my driver. Our methodology is: whilst we are four schools, four DofE numbers, it is one budget, pulling people centrally, and having a central database of our MIS was really, really key to that strategy. So, when we deployed it, it just meant that we would be using the technology effectively to bring the schools together to deliver that training. That online training works incredibly well as you can share your screen, you can record it, you have catch-up. It is a blended adult learning environment and that is how we deployed it.

MICHAEL: So, you are now at the point through the transition where you are empowering people to use the system. What benefits are you seeing as a CEO, and what benefits are the rest of your senior leadership team seeing? And what, additionally, are the teachers seeing as well to make informed decisions?

JONATHAN: As I said earlier, the key to any system is that you get out what you put in. The quality of what you put in – particularly in a management information system – the quality of being able to put in the right data needs to be dictated by the data you want to get out of it. So, if you look at the core information that empowers teachers to do the job, to make a difference to children, it is first and foremost the information around the child that puts the context to their educational achievement. That is assessment data; that is contextual data around special needs; it is around safeguarding information and, of course, attendance information that you can build a picture. What I and senior leaders would be looking for is to say, if a child is not making good progress, what do we mean by that? How can we identify the children that are not making progress – and then ask why they are not making it? Is it poor attendance? Is it the specific needs, that there needs to be a different approach and more support for that child? Or are there other barriers that may be causing the lack of progress? It is all about data.

So, we are looking for a management information system that is going to be able to put on the dashboard, quickly and intuitively, the analysis of the information that empowers us to make that decision. For a teacher in the class, day in, day out, it is calling the register. Typically, in primary school, where there is a morning register and the afternoon register, we are in a situation with wraparound care, running lots of after-school clubs, and we may be delivering a wider curriculum offer with more subject specialisms. So, when it comes to getting the timetable right with multiple registers, we found that Arbor handled that very well with the clubs and with their ability to create a club, generate a register for a fixed period of time and enrol people into that. So, you have your standard lesson time, but you have got this wider curriculum management. Then off the back of that, we are using some third-party tools that generate Microsoft Teams so, in our learning platform of Microsoft Teams, we are now able to have an after-school activity of (for example) a cooking club. We can very quickly establish that club, create a register, enrol students in it, but generate a team for them to collaborate in, assign work in, and put the learning resources in – and Arbor is underpinning that way of working. It is empowering the teachers to be able to deliver the curriculum that they want to deliver.

MICHAEL: So, we talk a lot about data and data is only as good as what is entered into the system – how are you reporting now to governors? Is it much easier, with a bit more context? How are you going about that or how are the schools going about that, essentially?

JONATHAN: It is a lot simpler. We have a MAT wide dashboard. I may sit in a Trust Board meeting and people pull out analytics around the attendance and looking school-by-school and where we are with the Trust and the challenges particularly with COVID and then historically somebody ploughs over extracting the data, analysing that in a way to present it to the Trustees; we now give them access to look at the dashboard but in the meeting pulling the live data for the day, for the term as a webpage to share within the meeting. It is quick, it is live, it is intuitive.

MICHAEL: From your perspective, you are using what is entered almost immediately in terms of the picture that is recorded for attendance in the day so that you can see and put in intervention when required. When I say intervention, it may be a phone call to a parent or something along those lines. In terms of parents, how are you getting parents engaged with the data that is entered? And how are they seeing it?

JONATHAN: Parents have responded well to it. We launched the Parent Portal – I think that most management information systems have a parental engagement app and portal.

A text message is good, but it is costly, so you want a parent app to send messages on. They can look at the attendance and track it; so instead of us saying that the attendance level has dropped, they can know the thresholds and look at it instead. They can update their own contact information; keeping that updated can be a bane for many schools. So empowering parents to update their data takes away massively from the workload. They are the core out-of-the-box things that I was looking for in a MIS but where we are headed is that in sharing of the assessment information, there is up-to-date live assessment information going in. That is the next step of where we are using independent standardised assessment information, and we want to get that information into that parent app and so we are hopefully working with yourselves at Scomis to create that access for parents. That is really what the parents want to know: how is my child doing at school? Is there an issue? We want to provide accurate, up-to-date information as the assessments happen, that they can see where their child is and whether they are making good progress.

MICHAEL: You mentioned Scomis, as we are an accredited partner. What have you seen that Scomis helps with the Trust to move to Arbor and the ongoing support as well?

JONATHAN: The biggest concern for anyone moving your management information is that everything sits in that database. So, what you are worried about is in two parts. Firstly, is there a back-up? And secondly, what happens if we need that data whilst it is down? You do not want down time. So, in working with yourselves, we talked about that and planned for that migration, because before you enter a migration, you do not know what issues you will hit.

So, any migration, people are going to put caveats in – this can take up to four days. Within that time, we are taking your data down, therefore you cannot update the data. So absolutely everyone wants to migrate bang in the middle of a summer holiday and know a partner can do everything in the middle of the summer holiday. So, we chose the Easter break. But what it meant was that we needed some downtime in term-time – not a massive amount, but what you were able to do was to keep access to the one database whilst the migration was taking place before going live in the new. So having the assurance that the data is safe, you could access if there was a safeguarding issue to contact a parent; we would not have to duplicate work and update records manually; it went ahead smoothly. We had no issues all with that migration.

MICHAEL: You mentioned as well about the dashboard creating, and you using Arbor with Teams to create Teams groups for, for instance, the catering bit. We have had a dialogue around the dashboard, taking the GSL assessments and overlapping data. Can you elaborate more on the achievement of that?

JONATHAN: It is coming back to the triangulation around the child. There are many reasons why sometimes a child may not be achieving and progressing in the way that we would like. That could be a challenging home life or a disengagement with school. Attendance may drop; they become a school refuser. They might not feel positive about school itself.

They might be those children who are keen to achieve but feel negative about themselves as a learner. And they might have experiences where they have not been successful, and they think that they are a failure. That can be a barrier. There may be those children with specific special educational needs that would cause children to struggle and not make the pace of progress that we want. There may be those children doing well but could do better. So what we have got with the GL assessments is the ability to look at those attitudes towards themselves as a learner, towards school and the work that is being offered, so that we can look at their problem-solving, cognitive thinking skills: the way that they approach a change, as well as looking at their progress within English, Maths and Science. Within reading and writing, by pooling that data, what we want to be able to look at on the page is that child. We want to be able to say, “good attendance, got a specific educational need, does not feel very confident as a learner, making good progress but not at the pace we need.” We can then have a conversation with the child, with the parent but with the child. It is about having the informed, intentional conversations about how we support every child. Whilst lots of schools have got different sources of that information in the teacher’s hand, what we want to be able to do is to it with the parent. To see it at a class, a school, a Trust level, to look for trends and patterns to interrogate the data by saying: “show me all the children that are anxious about school with an attendance that is lower than 90%.” You will find a group of children very, very quickly that we might need to be focusing on with that pastoral support, particularly post COVID, if you have a task, a data manager to look at that, it is time consuming. If you could, using AI, talk to your computer, saying, “Cortana, can you give me a group of children within the Trust anxious about their learning with a low attendance.” It pulls that data to the page from your voice command. We are not there yet but it is where we want to go. It empowers the teachers and the leaders to interrogate the information, to make rapid change.

MICHAEL: It is about triangulating the information from various sources. Sometimes what you see on the page is not always the true story. So, I think that with that work around, that I think that it will give us more insight into the actual data. So that will be exciting to see. That will be good. I have never seen any other MIS do that – you may be cutting-edge here, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: I hope so!

MICHAEL: A final question: we talked about making a decision – you have embedded it, it has been in almost 12 months, what is the next element of the journey for you?

JONATHAN: It is that dashboard that we have been talking about, really. It is to get the quality of the data in right, get the smooth data out right, using the extraction tools to populate the Cloud learning environment right, to getting the teachers, the staff, and the parents utilising the functionality that is there – but the big goal is then to say: “how can we make data work for us?”

MICHAEL: Absolutely. It is the key thing about any MIS. It should be working for you with the information that is entered. So, I totally agree. So, what advice would you give other schools or Trust, taking on a new MIS?

JONATHAN: Firstly – I probably alluded to it – we spent too long really looking at what we wanted out of the MIS. It was almost a necessary evil. What I mean by that, is that you must return your census. You need to send an email out to parents. It was simply about getting pupil data in to drive statutory requirements. What I would encourage MATs to do is think about the following question: how can you get the best from a management information system to cut workload, to give real-time, meaningful data, to be intuitive for your staff to use? Look at your criteria of what you are wanting and be visionary in it. So, that is the first thing.

The second thing the procurement; there are lots of frameworks to make the procurement straightforward. So, many think it will be a big exercise, particularly if you are a MAT with lots of schools (we are not). But if you are, you assume that having ten or twenty schools means that it it will be a massive task and difficult to achieve. I would suggest that it is not true. That it is bread and butter, procuring such service, use the frameworks that are there, and do not let it be the excuse for getting the right play into play in your organisation. The third advice is to get on and do it. So, we often have a meeting to get a plan together to implement: a month becomes a term, then it becomes a year, and it is never the right time.
If you imagine that this was something in your personal life – your bank or your energy bills – you would be asking, “what is going to provide me with the best deal today?” I would like to think that Arbor is going to develop the product that is right for us as we evolve and push the boundaries and implement technology to make a change organisationally to empower what we want to do. But if Arbor does not maintain the pace and does not do it, if there is another MIS out there that starts to generate more functionality that will better suit our needs, then we must switch. It is our data: we must move our data to the right platform that works for us at that point in time. You are not in it for life. Think carefully for the period you are signing up for, the partners you want to work with. I have to say, there are a lot of scare stories out there. I think all organisations are trying to tie you in for multiple years. I get that if you make a big investment, you do not want to move again, so you may agree to be tied in for three or five years. It is a long period to be tied in for – and you should not be, in my opinion, wedded to one company indefinitely. You want to be getting the right product for you today.

Therefore, what I did like about Arbor was that I felt that they really supported. They were honest; they delivered to their words; they were professional in their approach. And there was not the sense that they might hold us to the letter of the law. You see many high-profile cases, particularly for MATs where they are hanging on to the business but losing the customer; it is a very contractual relationship. I wanted a partnership; not that it meant that I could renege on our commitment, but that we could evolve together. So, you must find the right firm that wants to work in partnership with you to deliver your outcome. Scope it, use the frameworks that are there to really make the right, informed choice and to get on and do it.

MICHAEL: I know there is a lot of scaremongering out there. With partners like ourselves, we try and make it as easy as possible. From our point of view, we took a very careful decision, even at Scomis, to become a partner and we have made the right decision and we have a good partnership with Arbor, where I know that if we cannot answer your question they can help us answer it. Thank you for your time and your insight which I am sure others will find extremely useful.