Compass Education: A New Direction for UK MIS?

compass education - a new direction for UK MIS

This blog has been written by Josh Perry, advisor and friend of Compass. Josh is the Director at Edtech experts and co-founder at SmartGrade, Carousel and a reliable informant on the MIS market through his popular blog Bring more data.

I’ve been involved in MIS in one way or another since 2012. Candidly, I’ve spent quite a bit of that time frustrated about the state of the market. In 2014 I wrote a blog entitled The structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard, which contained this observation:

The “MIS” market is not structured to foster innovation. 83% of schools in England use Capita’s desktop-based SIMS product (this helpful Edugeek post has the full breakdown). Cloud-based systems such as the promising, primary-focused Scholarpack are barely 1% of the market. Capita are not exactly hurrying towards the cloud. Maybe this is because they are happy with the way the market is working for them. Maybe I’d feel the same if 17,912 schools were paying me to sell them a legacy product.

Well, SIMS have lost over 30% of their schools since then, and yet they still don’t seem exactly to be rushing to leave those locally hosted roots behind. Their cloud product, SIMS Next Gen, was launched in Autumn 2021 and yet the Next Gen marketing site still focuses mostly on “the first slice ‘Take Register’”. 

So if innovation is not exactly gushing forth from SIMS, where do we look for it? Well, I took on an advisory role at Compass, the Australian HQ-ed MIS, two years ago precisely because I was keen to see more new thinking in this space. And now that their first English schools have gone live it seems like a great time to catch up with UK General Manager Pete Collison to find out more about the identity they’re carving out for themselves. Here’s a rundown of our conversation.

[Josh] Hi Pete. How did you get into the wonderful world of MIS?

[Pete] I’ve spent 20 years in edtech, mostly with RM and all in school-facing roles. In the past 5 or 6 years I’ve specialised in assessment, and that gave me exposure to RM Integris, the company’s MIS. What really struck me was how big the MIS ecosystem is and how many elements of the school day it touches. Conceptually a MIS covers everything from signing in to school in the morning through to taking registers throughout the day, managing lunch and handling clubs/trips and assessment. That’s a lot, right?

So when the opportunity came to move to Compass – I was excited to get stuck into the sector, and particularly to work with an established vendor that’s new in the UK. It felt like the perfect mix of a startup’s agility but with an established company behind it.

OK, so tell me about that ‘established company’. What’s the Compass story?

Well it’s a bit of a Silicon Valley-style story. The company is still run by the founders, John and Lucas, who met over lunch whilst working for AXA Australia, and bonded over their shared passion for Edtech. Compass 0.1 was essentially borne out of them looking to automate some of the more simplistic processes of schools. The first few months of Compass’s life was spent in Lucas’s parents’ garage, whiteboarding the school processes they wanted to automate! We’ve grown rapidly to serve over 2,000 schools in Australia and Ireland since then, but the company still feels quite startuppy in its culture. It’s founder-run, purpose driven, and fast-moving. And we are proud that Compass school number 1, Balwyn High School in Melbourne, is still a key customer to this very day!

The nice thing about how we’re approaching the UK is that while we benefit from Compass’s global credibility and broad range of pre-existing features, we also have a very substantial team here with its own identity, so all school interactions are handled from the UK. We’re very hands-on – we collaborate closely with schools and make frequent onsite visits to ensure that we understand their needs. We’re always on site when schools go live, so it’s a high touch and human service. I think this is one thing that really sets us apart: we make time for every school and they get a lot of time from us before, during and after migration to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

Right, so tell me more about the Compass strategy in the UK

The great thing about Compass is that we’re a fully-featured MIS, with a really broad range of modules, so we can be a one stop shop if schools want; but equally we integrate with other systems and we’re very happy to give schools complete flexibility to use other software alongside us if they so wish. In other words, we are very mindful that Compass is part of a school ecosystem, and we know that it’s for a school to decide how we fit into that.

I believe choice is good. It improves innovation and ultimately that leads to better outcomes. I’d love schools to choose Compass, but regardless, by increasing choice we know we’re doing a good thing.

Importantly, we also feel there’s a space for a vendor who is genuinely purpose-led. Compass is a for-purpose company, not a for-profit company. That dictates our behaviour and how we support our customers.

You mentioned there that you’re fully featured – tell me a couple of areas where you really stand out from the competition.

Right, so let’s take one universal part of the system, and one quite advanced area. Starting with the universal, we’re really proud of how School Census works. Because Australia doesn’t really have an equivalent concept, we basically got to design this bit of the software for the UK from the ground up. When you look at it you see straight away that everything you need to do is visible in one set of windows. We’ve also set up the flow so that only relevant students are displayed. Everything is also easy to export to spreadsheets for checking. It’s been so well-received that we’ve even just had some schools import data before they go fully live so they can run census through us. That makes us proud of the approach we’re taking. 

School Census in Compass

Then perhaps the most advanced part of the Compass offer is timetabling, which we offer through our Griddle module. You don’t have to use it if you adopt Compass, so It’s a great example of how we can be a one stop shop or part of a modular ecosystem in a school or MAT.

But if you do take on Griddle, the first thing you’ll discover is that it’s designed to cater for the best interests of both students and staff – for example there’s the ability for pupils to choose their options online, and that feeds straight into Griddle. Schools can create rules about which groups of subjects students can choose from, or define a range of pathways, such as academic and vocational. In terms of the Timetable itself, specific staff can be assigned to classes, or groups of staff can be used – such as “KS3 English teachers”. The Timetable Engine will then optimise the scheduling of the timetable, taking into account all of the requirements for staffing and also the distribution of classes and teacher load. It’s incredibly powerful and is a real step forward from what we’ve seen schools using to date.

Students selecting their options and preferences in Griddle

Oh and actually let me throw in one more thing. A nice part of the Compass package is something called Kiosk which is totally unique. It’s a physical terminal which sits by the school’s reception and handles things like sign-in and sign-out, both for visitors and students, who can use Compass-issued access cards for this purpose. If a school chooses, their registers can be fully automated based upon student and staff tap-in and tap-out. Kiosk can also handle cashless catering using those same cards. We think this combination is a first for a UK MIS. 

Besides features, what’s something special about the Compass software?

A common thing we constantly hear from our schools who switch over is the user experience for staff and parents. We know schools are time-poor and their staff have a vast disparity of technical experience and confidence. Yet, School software can often be outdated compared to corporate technology or more modern apps such as social media platforms. It makes no sense! At Compass, we are constantly thinking about the end user. We have a modern UX design, simple navigation and colour coding to make Compass easy to learn for new users. We have a dedicated team of UX designers working day and night to make Compass intuitive, which is heavily led by customer feedback. That’s our specialty, I think, making complex tasks as simple as possible, with information easy to find and accessible to the whole school community.

Nice! So where are you now in terms of the UK schools market? How many schools do you have, how big is the team, and so on?

Well, we’ve had a good first year, with over 25 schools already signed up. As you know one of those went live in the autumn, and we were up to five by January. The rest will go live over the coming months. The key thing to say is that we don’t rush schools, but we are able to accommodate their needs if they need to move quickly. We let them go live at their own pace.

The team consists of over 200 employees from all around the world, with a large proportion of them dedicated to the UK market. Currently, 15 of these employees are based in the UK, and the team is continuing to expand rapidly.

In that case, I should probably ask you what you have to say to people considering a job with Compass?

We’re growing and we’re well-funded. Being a global organisation also brings opportunities – we’re very supportive of our UK team spending time in Australia and Ireland, for example. 

As for the type of people we hire, when interviewing, the first thing we look for is cultural fit. That cuts both ways – we need to make sure we hire people who are going to get what they need to be successful. We also offer plenty of geographical flexibility as we fully embrace hybrid and remote working for all roles. 

What I’d also like to make clear is that as a fast growing organisation, our senior leaders of the future are joining us now. So I guess it’s not quite a chance to get in on the ground floor, but we’re not much past the mezzanine!

Find out more about Compass and contact them via their website

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