How gov scapegoats systems for man-made errors
Dead pupil letter shows it is human to err
If you want to understand what is wrong with public policy when it comes to IT in the UK, look no further than the recent tragic case of the letter sent by a school to the parents of dead schoolgirl Megan Gillan, demanding that she improve her attendance.
It was one of those bleak and bitter accidents that inevitably occur from time to time, leaving sysadmins everywhere breathing a sigh of relief that on this occasion it was nothing to do with them.
Total error-free operation is not a realistic goal. Bugs do get built into systems, and no matter how perfect the system, they still need people to operate them - fallible people.
What could be avoided is the misleading aftermath: the spokespeople for official bodies running round and blaming the system, the reinforcement of the public myth that computers are somehow alien, given to working in mysterious ways quite beyond the ken of the average punter.
When we first read this story – a single paragraph in one of the broadsheets – the event was described as a "system error". Our instant reaction was that this was unlikely; most system errors usually turn out to have a very human origin.
However, the same story was elaborated upon in the BBC report of the event. Cheshire County Council confirmed that Megan’s school had been using Capita’s School Information Management Systems software (SIMS) to maintain her details. A spokeswoman for the Council was reported as saying: "Megan's name had been taken off the school roll when she died, and removed from the main school database.
"However, unknown to the school, her details had remained in a different part of the computer system and were called up when the school did a mail merge letter to the parents of all Year 11 students about their prom.
"The letter called up details of each student's attendance for the whole year to date and because Megan had been on roll in September, she was included."
So the system, for some peculiar reason, holds multiple representations of the same data? If true, that would be an accident waiting to happen.
Except, according to Capita, that is not so. After wading through their initial slightly woolly response, which committed them to a software change that would make it impossible to send attendance letters out to pupils who have left a particular school, we put it to them that the systems architecture implied by the above statement would make their system unfit for purpose.
They took the bait and politely, but firmly, explained that our conjecture was wrong. The system only contains a single data table for pupils' names and addresses. The issue was pretty much as outlined above.
We are still not totally convinced of the need for a software fix. We have since spoken to the Head of ICT in a school that runs SIMS, who was equally scathing of the idea that this was a "system error", pointing out that the software allows schools to set a deceased flag, after which, as far as he is aware, all communications in respect of a given pupil are automatically blocked.
If true, the danger of putting in a "fix" of the kind that Capita have proposed is that it adds to the complexity of the system, and increases ever so slightly the possibility of a real bug being introduced. It is cosmetic rather than necessary.
Sorry John, but this is a crap case study to make your point.
I worked in IT support for schools for 7 years until very recently. In that time I supported SIMS, Facility CMIS and just before I left, RM's Integris G2. All 3 of these pieces of school management software were completely and utterly atrocious and it's very, very believable that this was indeed a system error.
Giving these systems the benefit of the doubt that they were programmed correctly and that there was no data corruption shows utter ignorance as to how terribly bad these systems are.
Judging by the issues faced with these systems I'd say it's highly likely that this was indeed a system error as they truly are that bad and that unreliable.
I do agree with your point in the article John, that systems are often unfairly blamed but you really could and should have found a far better example than this because this is one of those cases where the system almost certainly is to blame.
Although information may be stored in one database, there are issues surrounding the database being developed to a reasonable normal form (3NF or upwards) and tables not being sensibly cross-referenced and changes not being correctly cascaded.
SIMS and all other School Management Software out there is abysmal. We're talking about software so badly written that even Windows ME appears like a gem of perfect software development when compared relatively. We're talking about a system where updates or fixes might come as a bunch of files copied straight from the developers computer into a zip file including their local configurations which you have to extract and mangle back by hand to suit your configuration even if it's more standard as per their documentation than the developer's often customised setup! You'll probably then have to run some dodgy db fix app or similar that then runs through the database and mangles it to suit the update, but of course you'll be reminded to back up your database first because this may not work and then you'll have to get their support to fix your data by hand too.
See if Capita will send you a copy of SIMS to evaluate and have a go at setting it up and installing it, play around with it, see what you think. I think you'll be dissapointed when you realise how bad it is and how tax payers money is being wasted on this crap. If I thought I stood a chance of selling the stuff to schools (which I don't because backhanders and government buddies etc. ensure a select few companies get all the contracts) I'd say the market is ripe for the picking for a team of 3 or 4 competent developers to make a small fortune.
The other software, Facilicty CMS is just as bad, and RM's integris G2 is web based and horrifically bad also - the system regularly keels over under the load (apparently RM don't believe in stress testing) their database server crashed once or twice and was down for hours (apparently redundancy and failover devices aren't something they believe in either) and simple errors such as users not logging out of the system properly leaving pupil records locked which you can only get unlocked for staff to access again by contacting the Integris helpdesk were all too common. Oh, and it was advertised as working in Windows 2000 with IE5.5 and Firefox upwards except it never worked properly in IE6 at the time, so it was even sold on lies.
Make no mistake, the UK school management software market is an embarassment to IT, it is an utter fucking shambles. It is an abomination that should be erased from the planet and that we should start from scratch on with competent development teams.
Databases and proper treatment...
If the same developer made the software that handles the database and the software that handles the mail merge, shame on them! Do one thing well. One thing! Allow the user to export the data/reports in a variety of types, and let professional mail merge software handle the letters.
If the user made an export of the form: While Attendance<n, export(Name_Student, Attendance, Name_Parent_Custodial, Address_Parent_Custodial), shame on the user for (in order) not (a) Checking the results. (b) Accepting responsibility for the error. or (c) Considering the deceased flag in the query.
Yes, the lack of technical skill is the LEAST important thing here- The user knew his or her level of skill, and should have run a common sense check against the results.
The system is still in error, and more than a software patch is needed.
This is a cover up...
They were actually auto sending out gcse english pass certificates to everyone who had ever registered for the school newsletter, thus proving they could read, to boost their league table standings....(the fact it was opt-out was irrelevant)...
..and they would've gotten away with it too,...