Switching MIS during the pandemic: Case study with Orwell MAT

Rebecca Watkins - 5 July, 2021

Category : Blog

Switching MIS during the pandemic: Case study with Orwell MAT

As part of our popular webinar series for MAT Leaders – “Building a Resilient Trust” –  Arbor’s CEO, James Weatherill spoke to Anna Hennell James, CEO of Orwell MAT about her strategies for guiding her trust successfully through Covid-19, as well as how to plan for the future. Anna talked specifically about her decision to

As part of our popular webinar series for MAT Leaders – “Building a Resilient Trust” –  Arbor’s CEO, James Weatherill spoke to Anna Hennell James, CEO of Orwell MAT about her strategies for guiding her trust successfully through Covid-19, as well as how to plan for the future.

Anna talked specifically about her decision to move Orwell to a new cloud-based MIS in order to work more effectively as a Central Team during the pandemic and going forward.

You can catch up on Anna’s interview, which took place on 24th February 2021, below. If you’re a fellow MAT Leader, it has some great practical tips on that you can take back and reflect on for how to lead your own trust through this next stage of the pandemic.

You can also catch up on key interviews from the rest of the series in our exciting new ebook. Download your copy of the free ebook for MAT leaders here.

Orwell Multi Academy Trust: Fact file

Orwell Multi Academy Trust was founded in 2017 and is made up of six primary schools in Suffolk. Several of the schools are in areas of high deprivation, with high rates of free school meals and pupil premium. One of the schools is currently being sponsored. Prior to being CEO, Anna Hennell James was a Headteacher at one of the schools in the trust. She’s worked in education for her whole professional life. Orwell MAT switched from SIMS to Arbor’s cloud MIS in September 2020. 


What was the main reason you decided to switch MIS?

We chose to change our MIS system for a variety of reasons, and we carried on with the decision even when the pandemic hit. When we formed the trust, we shouldn’t have been quite so reluctant to maintain the status quo. Having seen the impact of changing systems, the only thing I’d say in retrospect is that I wish we’d done it sooner! 

What prompted you to consider switching MIS?

The biggest driver was the frustration of staff who work centrally. We’re a relatively small trust and a pretty small team, so we don’t have huge capacity. Any time we wanted any information around employees and staffing, or pupil data and attendance, I had to contact each school separately. 

To start with, we felt that was something we could live with, but it soon became frustrating. If trustees asked us for information, it was a pain to have to ask busy schools to send it over. I’d then have to collate it and pull it together myself. It became  quickly apparent that we needed something that did this for us, and could show us all schools at once. We needed a cloud-based system. 

How did you research the systems available, and who did you involve in the decision? 

We involved quite a lot of people in the decision, but on a manageable scale. In January of 2020, I attended BETT (British Educational Training and Technology Show) with our CFO, a couple of Headteachers, plus a couple of Teachers. I thought it was important for people who would be using the system to come along to see what was on offer.

After having narrowed it down a bit, we arranged demonstrations and, by the time they all happened, everything had moved online. At the demonstration stage, we involved all of the Headteachers and Office Managers. Because we had so many different stakeholders involved in the decision, we managed to cover all aspects, and it meant we were confident in making the right decision for everyone. That’s the approach we take on any kind of change that we’re going through. If we’re looking for a new system or a new project, we always hunt in a pack. 

How did you plan for the switch and how did you deal with the extra workload?

When we first started looking for a new system, we hadn’t planned to roll it out as quickly as we did. When we realised it could be relatively straightforward, we brought the switch forward. One of the things that helped us was a basic Excel spreadsheet, a bit like a Gantt chart which had all the things that were going on across the trust. When we started looking at making the change, we plotted it in and we could see what else was happening and where pinch points might be. 

We made the decision to switch on 1st September 2020 and gave ourselves the Summer Term to get trained and ready. Starting the new school year on a new system was great because it meant no one could procrastinate. It was actually a very smooth process. 

How authoritative did you have to be during the switch?

To be honest, not very. I think that’s because, although people were very familiar and comfortable with the systems they were using, they recognised that they weren’t the most efficient and that it was quite difficult to get the information they wanted out. Once people had seen the demonstrations of Arbor and could see what it could do, they were positive about the change. 

We also had a couple of eager Headteachers who wanted to start even sooner and were asking if there was a test site to practise on, which there was. That was really helpful because people felt they could go in in their own time and have a play around. This built confidence and, once those Headteachers started sharing what they found, the excitement rippled out and encouraged more people to start getting involved. By the time we actually hit the date to press the button and switch, people were already feeling confident and were ready to make the move over. 

Once you’d chosen your new MIS, the country was in lockdown and the training had to be done digitally. How did you find this experience?

I don’t think we’ve been disadvantaged at all by the training not happening in person. In fact, I think people preferred it because some Office Managers chose to do the online training from home so they weren’t getting interruptions in the office. We were able to offer adjusted timings for training, and the beauty of it was that it was all recorded and sent out straight after each live session. 

Arbor also provides very comprehensive workbooks and instructions and the Help Centre is really intuitively organised. Our team felt they could help themselves and get ready for the change. Plus, they had the option to speak to somebody if they needed to, so people felt there was a lot of support around it. It has made us discuss the other sorts of training we do at Orwell, because whilst we all miss being in the same room as each other, it’s definitely the most efficient and effective option. 

Was there anything that went wrong in the process? 

I don’t think anything went hugely wrong. One thing that happened was we ended up with four schools going live on 1st September and two going live on 1st November. In hindsight it would have been better to have everyone go live at the same time. From 1st of November, we’ve had everybody using the system and that’s been when we’ve seen the real impact of it. 

Any fears about losing data or children disappearing off the system, never materialised. There were only a few little issues around historical data that were transferred in, but this was due to mistakes in the old system and it was fixed very quickly.

Did switching MIS cause you to review any other systems or processes at your trust?

When we were looking, we wanted to be sure the other systems we use would sync with the MIS. For example, we use CPOMS across all of the schools for recording safeguarding and Inventory for door systems, which all sync with Arbor. 

The move to Arbor is causing us to reflect on our culture and our approach, as well as the systems we’re using. It highlighted the fact that, although we mostly leave our schools to do what they do best, there are times when it could be beneficial to have more consistency and alignment. For example, as a trust we’ve never imposed a particular way of doing assessments. Assessment data that comes to me is always summative, and the formative process that people go through in schools is up to them. We’re now realising that if we can have a singular system that everyone is putting data into, it would be transformative. We now have an assessment working party who have had training from Arbor on the Assessment module and we’re getting a few bits personalised. This will help us become more of a joined-up trust with more robust discussion and moderation because we’ll be comparing like for like.

Is there anything you’d do differently knowing what you know now?

I don’t think we would have changed anything because the process was well managed and there was a lot of hand-holding throughout. Everybody was given a really clear timeline of dates and deadlines and I had weekly meetings with the schools to check in and receive feedback on any issues that might be cropping up. The Arbor team is clearly very experienced at doing the process. 

How has Arbor changed the way that you work and what benefits can you already see? 

It’s made a huge difference and made our lives a lot easier. We get an overview of the trust as soon as we log into the Group MIS dashboard, and we can also drop into individual institutions to get things. I have absolutely loved the Covid-19 attendance dashboard for each school because  when I’m reporting to trustees or to the RSC on attendance, or the proportion of our students with EHCPs or FSM, it’s all there for me. I just love it. 

It’s also been great in terms of openness between the trust team and the schools because the schools know that we’re working in the same system. We don’t have permission to change anything, but they know what we can see. This has led to discussions around more open sharing of other things. 

There’s so much you can do in Arbor that we’re not necessarily doing. One of our schools that is keen to use Arbor to its full capacity is using it as the place to record all their staff performance management. The Headteacher has given me access to that so I can go in and get a sense of what’s being worked on across the whole school and how that compares to the other schools. It’s generating conversations around the commonality of need for CPD in particular areas such as leadership development. It’s changing our way of thinking about a lot of things and we’re only at the very early stages of using it. 

What would your advice be to other Trust Leaders who might be thinking about switching MIS? 

I’d say if you’re going to change MIS, make sure you include the right people in the decision making process. 

It’s also not as scary as you think. You can often delay these things if you think it’s not the right time. But honestly, our move was incredibly smooth. It was a really tight, well managed process with clear systems, clear lines of communication, good contact and support for everyone involved. This has carried on once we moved over. I think if you can pick the right system with the right support, you can feel confident that even if there are some glitches, they’ll be managed quickly. If we’d had done it four years ago it would have made our life so much easier. 

Want a demo of Arbor MIS?

If you’d like to find out how Arbor could transform the way you work, come along to our free webinars to see the system in action. You can also arrange a personalised demo here or get in touch with us at tellmemore@arbor-education.com or call 0208 050 1028.

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