When it comes to education technology, the focus of the last 18 months has been on digital education platforms – understandably so. But in that time, we’ve found schools have not abandoned their long-held plans for wider digital transformation.
In fact – and perhaps more than any other sector we work with – schools always have big ambitions for their ICT. And now that some semblance of normality is returning, we’re seeing schools are reexamining other areas of education technology, including finance systems.
So, we felt it was high time to take a closer look at this topic. To do this, I put some questions to my colleagues Tim Scott (TS) and Mike McEwen (MM), as well as Robert Pope (RP), from our partner Bam Boom Cloud. You can find out a little more about them below – and I’ve added links to further information mentioned throughout our roundtable.
Ben Rogers (BR): What’s so important about a school’s finance system? Why might schools be rethinking this aspect of their ICT?
TS: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say a school’s financial system oils the wheels of the organisation. And that’s because they’re now expected to do much more than accounting.”
MM: “Yes. I mean, once upon a time, those systems were effectively electronic versions of bookkeeping. But things have changed – driven by the internet, cloud, and the technology we use in our personal lives – and I think that’s why more and more schools want, and need, their finance systems to go beyond that traditional function.”
RP: “Definitely – it makes no sense for finance to run in isolation. As a function of business management, it’s tied to so many things, like how you handle your suppliers or manage projects. And then, for schools, there are unique areas, such as student records, or parental engagement.
MM: “That’s a really good point. It reminds me of a school that wanted to add a section to its website where parents could log in to pay for school trips, complete surveys and give authorisations. It made complete sense for the school to do this, because by digitising these processes, they could save time and reduce paperwork.
“But, the school discovered its new parental portal couldn’t connect with its finance system and, in turn, other systems. And for that school, its finance system effectively held them back from what they wanted to do.”
TS: “Yes – that’s a good example. A finance system is a linchpin, and if it doesn’t integrate with other systems, like MIS, it can really hamper progress on other projects. I suspect many schools have learned this the hard way.”
RP: “A big reason for this is many schools have older finance systems – ‘legacy systems’, to use IT lingo. Those systems weren’t designed from the ground up for the internet, or for integrating with other systems. This means they’re often not suitable for schools’ plans – digital transformation or otherwise.”
BR: So, integrating older finance systems with other, newer systems can be a real challenge. Is this the biggest issue with these finance systems?
MM: “I’m not sure if you could say it’s the biggest issue, as though there’s a sliding scale of challenges. Even the tiniest technical issue can be a huge challenge if it’s stopping a school from fulfilling its plans.”
TS: “One thing that’s relevant here is what we’ve learned from helping schools with their ICT: they really are ambitious. I wonder if that’s because, after all, schools help children make progress, so this forward-thinking mentality spills over into their culture as an organisation. So Mike is right, something as seemingly small as not being able to get through to a support desk when a piece of technology is not working for a lesson, can have a real domino effect on a school.”
RP: “Yes, we’ve seen that in our work with schools, too. It isn’t just about the usual things we talk about in technology circles – like saving time, reducing paperwork, streamlining systems and so on. It’s because, at their heart, schools exist to help students grow. And teachers and staff want to spend as much time as possible doing this, and not spend all their time addressing technology issues.
“What I would say in response to Ben’s question is another really big issue for education technology – and finance systems, in particular – is cyber security. This is especially true of on-site hardware, which many schools rely on.”
MM: “Definitely. Although ICT professionals and vendors tend to wax lyrical about cloud technology as being superior to on-premise technology , it’s not without good reason. Because having hardware in a school is often more difficult and expensive to maintain.
“But that is the tip of the iceberg. If a school doesn’t maintain its on-site hardware, it can miss out on the upgrades it needs to protect the school from cyber attacks.
TS: “And where cyber security is concerned, there are some aggravating factors that specifically affect schools. Their databases contain highly sensitive data. And they have a huge number and variety of users accessing their systems – particularly over the past 18 months – and not everybody is as security conscious as we’d all like.”
MM: “The pandemic is definitely associated with a rise in cyber attacks. I think it’s a direct result of how ICT networks have changed over the crisis, with people accessing them from home, and through their own devices. Unfortunately, bad actors have been exploiting this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the DfE is launching a new cyber security programme for schools next January.”
“There’s some good research out there about this. But I’m conscious schools don’t always have huge IT departments, and sometimes decisions about technology fall to people who don’t have a technology background.
“So I’d recommend those professionals have a look at the National Cyber Security Centre for its advice to schools – it’s written in non-technical terms, with none of the sales spiel you might get from some vendors. Also, there’s a really useful infographic on cyber breach trends from Information is Beautiful.
“Although the infographic I’m thinking of focuses on the private sector and ransomware – which is only one kind of cyber breach – it does give a clear visual portrayal of what’s happened in 2020 and 2021. And it’s interactive, linking to some good sources and articles – which is useful for schools that may not have dedicated cyber security teams.”
TS: “Yes, I think both us at AdEPT and, I’m sure, our Bam Boom Partners are big fans of infographics in terms of explaining and demystifying technology. Information is Beautiful is a great one for schools generally, too. I’m sure their infographics would go down well in classrooms – especially for maths lessons!”
BR: Back to the topic at hand, are there any other ways some older finance systems could be holding schools back?
TS: “Yes – but to answer that question, I think it’s important to consider who in a school now uses a finance system. So, while bursars and finance teams may be the main users, these systems are now used by business managers and senior management, as well.
“And as finance systems have attracted a wider range of stakeholders, the role of finance has also changed. In the past, it tended to take a ‘rearview mirror’ approach – looking back at the organisation’s fiscal performance for the past year, reporting what happened retrospectively.
“But now, many schools want much more than that. Knowing their financial data is a great source of information, they don’t want to wait until set times to make decisions when it’s too late to act.”
RP: “Yes. And this is true of finance and accounting in other sectors – organisations want their financial function to play a bigger role in the day-to-day choices and help shape the organisation’s future. The problem is that many older finance systems were built for that ‘rearview mirror’ accounting, but not for this kind of forward thinking. Advances in technology first pioneered in large enterprises such as AI, Machine Learning and Cognitive Services have filtered down to small organisations – providing capabilities to predict, focus on outcomes and support users rather than just provide a retrospective system of record.
“That’s not to say all finance systems are inadequate. Most of them give you graphs and tools to help your decision-making. But should you want to manipulate and analyse your financial data in unique ways – and what school doesn’t – it can be tricky.
“For example, some of our clients report having to spend lots of time manually fiddling with exported spreadsheets and files just to get answers to their questions – not exactly helpful for a school that wants to be more proactive with its finances.”
BR: From what you’ve described, there seems to be three main challenges concerning school finance systems: 1) integration with legacy systems; 2) cyber security and 3) the changing role of finance as a business function. If that’s agreed, I’ll look at how we’re helping schools address these challenges…
Introducing Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Cloud – and a new partnership – to help your school to improve its finance function
There’s every chance you already use Microsoft applications in your school. For example, you might use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint as part of Microsoft 365, which was formerly called Microsoft Office. And you might have added remote teaching tools to that collection during the pandemic. But alongside Microsoft 365 is a suite of other business applications, including finance – which can be of great help for schools.
That suite is called Microsoft Dynamics 365. And as the name suggests, it shares the same ‘DNA’ as Microsoft 365, which means if you’re confident using Microsoft 365, you’ll find Dynamics 365 a breeze.
Additionally, just as Microsoft 365 has different packages for different organisation sizes and needs, so too does Dynamics 365 – and the package that might be of interest to your school is ‘Business Central’.
It’s a slimmed-down version of the full Dynamics 365, offering a selection of cloud-based applications geared towards finance and related areas. Schools typically choose this package for the following benefits:
・Integration with other systems: as discussed above, this is a real draw for schools. Business Central’s compatibility with Microsoft 365 saves a lot of time and hassle when working across systems.
・Familiarity and ease of use: similarly, since Business Central’s interfaces and features mirror Microsoft 365, staff tend to take to it quickly, saving time and expense on training.
・Impeccable security: as a major technology company, Microsoft invests heavily in security and continually innovates in this area. See, for example, this news about Microsoft doing away with passwords (which can be hacked) in place of more sophisticated methods.
・Continual investment: unlike other vendors, Microsoft does not subject its customers to ‘version lock’, which happens when you have to pay for a software update. Instead, you pay a flat fee for licensing, knowing that your applications are always up to date.
・Grows with your organisation: many technology companies talk about being ‘scalable’, but don’t explain what that practically means. In the case of Business Central, one example of this is its application programming interface (API), which is open, unlike those from competitors. Business Central’s API is rather like a set of instructions that allows third-party developers to build niche apps to integrate with the software. This means you’ll be able to use vetted third-party apps as ‘plugins’, so you can customise the platform as your school changes, helping you to solve problems in innovative ways.
The best of both worlds
If you work in a school, and Business Central has piqued your interest, then you’ll want to know more about who can help you set it up. As with the schools we already support, you may be looking for minimal disruption, straightforward advice and transparent pricing. Our new partnership with Bam Boom Cloud may be of benefit precisely for those reasons. But first, a little more about us.
Being a company with a long history of working with schools, we’ve found they choose us because we focus on simplifying the complex and intimidating world of IT. After all, many schools do not have enormous IT teams that can act as intermediaries between management and technology suppliers – if they have an IT team at all. A good example of this is our work with Sunnyfields, where the headteacher is the school’s main IT person.
At the same time, we believe finance systems should be designed primarily for professionals like business managers – not IT professionals – and supported by people with the same background.
And that’s why Bam Boom Cloud is such a great choice. It’s a technology company founded by financial professionals, for financial professionals – so if you have a finance or business management background, Bam Boom Cloud will talk your language. And combined with our technology heritage, you’ll get the best of both worlds.
Additionally, when we form partnerships with other companies, we do just as much vetting as you do when you look for a supplier. With Bam Boom Cloud, here’s what stood out for us – and what might matter to you, too:
・The Bam Boom Cloud team pride themselves on being ‘educators’, not salespeople. They don’t have sales targets, do not rely on selling unnecessary extras, and instead focus on giving the best service possible.
・The team has many awards, especially from Microsoft – including the rare honour of having won world partner of the year three times over. To give these awards, Microsoft regularly tests individual employees, because, after all, it’s individual employees who you deal with – so it’s the expertise of individuals that counts.
・Bam Boom Cloud specialises in Business Central. And as such its processes have been refined over many years, meaning they’re transparent, methodical and efficient. So you’re in safe hands and kept informed at every step.
・Bam Boom Cloud’s KickStart package is especially valuable for schools. It’s designed to get you up and running on Business Central within a week, minimises downtime, and has a clear pricing structure and straightforward training.
You’ll find a wealth of information on both of our websites referenced above. But hopefully, this blog has given you a useful introduction – and the next step is discussing your school’s specific needs. You can get in touch with our AdEPT Education team on email@example.com or 01689 814700; or you can contact Tim, Mike or Robert directly through LinkedIn: