SIF Strikes back

Filed under: Education,Process,Standards — lenand @ 12:17 am
Tags: , , ,

Schools in the UK process the information about 9 million children on a daily basis. The total volume is hardly noticed as it is performed in about 27,000 independent, self-contained locations. This is not just by the 400,000 teachers, but also by up to 90,000 administration staff and assistants. A school is typically involved in the operation of 10 different systems with records of attendance, achievements, school meals, libraries, parental addresses etc. Grossing up, there are about operational 250,000 systems. Much of the data is shared, within a school, across schools, up to local authorities and to the Department for Education (DfE). They share childrens’ names, addresses, dates of birth, nationality, parents’ names, qualifications etc.

Some data is a statutory requirement, such as registration of attendance, twice per school day. Some is necessary for the operation of timetables and recording of progress. Some is valuable for the transfer of children between schools, peaking at the beginning of a school year. Why is SIF potentially so important?:

  • There is a hidden administrative burden entering, correcting and transmitting school records. Often there is no automatic transfer of records, requiring manual re-entry of data – complete with transcription errors. Incoming electronic records may be invalid. It is said that 90% of the administration work is caused by 10% of the records ie those which are incorrect.  All this is a high cost to the UK economy.  SIF can reduce it.
  • Access to computer facilities by children and staff is now ubiquitous. Security is required to protect computer accounts from inappropriate access, malicious behaviour and bullying. Identity Management in schools and from home locations is essential. Usernames and passwords should be common across all systems used by teachers or students. Technology that is commonly used in Universities is slowly spreading to schools. Allowing one sign on for accounts in many systems needs secure and reliable data sources. SIF can synchronise them.
  • Data collected for operational use within schools can be shared horizontally in local consortia.  Data can be aggregated and analysed both for school use and for vertical reporting to local authorities, the DfE or other agencies.  SIF is built to speed up such processes at certified levels of accuracy.

The power of the DfE is immense, but the independence of schools is sacrosanct. Legislation is needed to enforce any Departmental edict. Schools need to operate their data processing independently, without undue hindrance from external authorities. The solution lies in Standards. The need for interoperability enforces standards; look at electric power, mobile phones, computer networks and rail tracks. Educational software is no exception. Standards have been developed for educational resources and administration for all levels of education.

Becta commissioned a study into the standards for administration systems and recommended the adoption of the US originated Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF). It has been modified for use in the UK. The SIF Association (UK) is the meeting place for educational software suppliers, schools and representative bodies (such as Regional Broadband Consortia). Standards have been agreed and software developed that securely and accurately transfers data between any compliant systems. A certification process is in place.  Local computer hubs orchestrate the data from all communicating systems; validating it against the Standard and ensuring that it is correct for receiving systems.

One good example is the South West Grid for Learning, which has started integrating multiple applications for over 2,500 establishments. They can provide a simplified sign-on service, personal online learning space, collaboration tools and interoperability of many services. Quality is assured for all records that comply with the Standard. Inevitably, such levels of integration highlight the poor quality of previous data. Slowly, but surely, the data can be cleansed and improve the efficiency and interoperability of school services.

SIF is a superb example of bottom-up collaboration, not enforced top-down.  SIF has more work to do than refute ill-informed opinions. SIF delivers benefits at a massive local level; it could be applied in 27,000 data centres.  SIF is Big Society.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Elmhorst, Leonard Anderson. Leonard Anderson said: SIF Strikes back: Benefits beat ill-informed opinion, IMHO. http://wp.me/p14MGf-78 […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention SIF Strikes back « Quarkside -- Topsy.com — 10/11/2010 @ 2:38 am | Reply

  2. Excellent post Leonard. You’ve made the benefits to schools in the UK very clear. The use of SIF is a no-brainer in schools today – if a school wants to reduces costs and ensure their data integrity, use SIF – it’s a win-win!

    Comment by Jeremy Meades — 10/11/2010 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  3. The elephant in the room is the leading supplier of MIS. If they see a commercial disadvantage from liberating school’s data from their silo then they will drag their feet & try to redefine the standard. It’s not that people think it’s a bad idea; just that SIF is near impossible to implement when there is an effective monopoly on source data. SIF had been made to look cumbersome, expensive and complex and that benefits one, significant, party. Shame, because effective sharing and use of data are the reasons the market is throttled. BECTA VfM report 2010 tried to address this once again but I don’t think it will effect any change…more likely to be seen as a parting shot from a sinking ship!

    Comment by johhny — 10/11/2010 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

    • Although I don’t think Capita were at the November Conference, they sounded very positive at the previous one in June, ie before the DfE grenade was tossed. SIF agents exist for most, if not all Capita SIMS products and it appeared that the security and orchestration features were resolved within the current SIF Specification. The agents do not have to be provided by the supplier, although it would be advisable to have them on side and coopeerating with any external supplier of agents.

      Comment by lenand — 10/11/2010 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  4. Could be a misunderstanding about SIF here. Capita is happy to supply read/write licenses for access to data and they’re not expensive. Implementations of SIF are becoming much lighter, less costly and simple in design. SIF infrastructures are in place and available for use by schools, e.g. SWGfL. Schools are crying out for interoperability and SIF is giving it to them. Some say, the market place has spoken! Here’s an example, a school within the SWGfL already benefits from identity management due to SIF plus other applications – I can supply a Moodle SIF Agent for schools in the SWGfL region from £495.00 and all the Moodle admin disappears – Moodle accounts, courses, groups and enrolments all sorted and maintained based upon MIS data.

    Comment by Jeremy Meades — 10/11/2010 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

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  7. […] on a common infrastructure based on the open standards and proven interoperability implemented with commercial off the shelf […]

    Pingback by Dithering in Cabinet Office? Who should lead ICT? « Quarkside — 08/12/2010 @ 6:30 am | Reply

  8. […] some high profile publicity of these facts if the current, more low key, representations do not rectify the […]

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  9. […] The busiest day of the year was November 11th with 192 views. The most popular post that day was SIF Strikes back. […]

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