back to article Software generated attendance letter about dead pupil

Capita is modifying its school management software after a letter about poor attendance was sent to the parents of a girl who had died. Macclesfield High School in Cheshire, which uses Capita's SIMS (school information management system) software, apologised to the parents of Megan Gillan for the distress the letter caused. …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Crapita should have spent the money to hire a proper DBA to normalise the data when the system was being designed.

    Seems like they were a bit pikey here.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Computer Error

    Grr. Blame the computer, blame the software. Never ever admit or explain that it was a human error made by the programmers or designers who didn't consider this condition when they wrote the code. Don't question how a school system can send a letter to a child's parents without anyone handling that letter knowing enough about the child in question to realise the mistake before the letter was sent. Much simpler just to blame the computer.

  3. Wabberjocky

    I'm not at all surprised

    This doesn't come as a surprise. My wife has the misfortune to have to work with SIMS as a member of teaching staff at a local secondary school. If you think <insert least favourite software> is bad you should try SIMS. It raises the concept of 'user hostile' to entirely new levels.

    If SIMS is in anyway representative of software used in government, there's no hope. Mine's the one with the passport and one-way tickets to, well, anywhere will do.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    As a Capita Employee

    this surprises me not one jot. Most of the company runs on Visio to plan the work, and Excel to do it.

    Note that by "plan the work", I mean "a bunch of 'project managers who have no idea about anything make pretty pictures that bear no relation to reality", and by "do the work", I mean "people who sometimes care about trying to do a good job struggling against the glacier-like momentum of the beaurocracy and not getting any sort of appropriate tools for the job".

    Anonymous? You betcha, I ain't got my redundancy payment yet...!

  5. Anonymous Coward

    I used to work with SIMS.

    It's some really crappy software which just hates to work, and Capita are no better.

    They "acknowledge that there is a problem with part of their software" (Canned reply to most problems you have) then do sod all about it unless enough users complain.

    Fire because it's the best way to handle SIMS.

  6. Arnie
    Thumb Down

    SIMS does it again

    Honestly if you have ever had to work with this POS software you understand that this is completly par for the course

  7. alain williams Silver badge

    Did SIMS put the letter into the post ?

    ''Blame the computer'' -- a good excuse.

    OK: it probably did print the letter, but someone must have taken it from the printer, put it into an envelope and put it into the post. The death of a child would have been known by every member of staff, schools are not that big.

    The computer printed it, some non-thinking moron in the school office did the rest.

  8. Anonymous Coward


    Presumably some human signed it, though?

  9. Lukin Brewer

    Reminds me of the one...

    Where a local census database had a two-digit field for each person's age. As a result, a 106-year-old lady came up as 06 years old, and got a visit from the local truant catcher.

  10. PaulK
    IT Angle

    Anyone remember GIGO?

    It's easy to blame the software, but some fucking numpty had to put the bloody letter in an envelope. Are there so many skiving little gits that human intervention is not feasible?

  11. M7S


    "Capita have asked the school to convey their apologies to Mr and Mrs Gillan."

    They never can face up to the people their incompetence messes up.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Poor design

    Cause: poor system design: having data replicated in different places and not having sufficient interfaces between subsystems to send delete instructions across to ensure all subsystems are kept in sync.

    Simple data replication issues.

    Inadequate system testing too.

  13. Ruana

    Does the bar look a bit lower these days?

    The school can thank British Gas for making it appear laudable that they took responsibility and apologised rather than just blaming the computer...

  14. TeeCee Gold badge

    Future entertainment.

    Let's see. High profile cockup? Check. Managerial panic? Check. "Must do it now, now, now" software mod to a complex system to fix it? Check.

    I'll bet that they're trimming the testing and QC processes to rush the fix out and prevent another tabloid page 2 quality fuckup. What they'll get, of course, is a whole new set of different pig's ears.

    Watch this space.....

  15. xjy
    Paris Hilton


    The school and the company should have their arses fined off. Maybe they should be exterminated and their unloved ones receive threatening absenteeism letters for the rest of their lives a la Readers Digest.

    (Paris cos at least she realizes when someone's dead...)

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    a vision

    A vision of the future for the database society

  17. Ru

    Hooray for Crapita

    SIMS was my first exposure to real enterprisey software as a young and naive IT monkey.

    Truly, it is an utterly repellent collection of buggy crapplets, ever so carefully obfuscated at the database and protocol levels to prevent people from attempting to replace any of the system with code that might actually *work*

    I always loved the way that the support package was an optional expense... not that anyone would be able to use the software without it, given its tendency to break in various weird and wonderful ways throughout the year whenever an update to fix the last catastrophic problem was released.

    Somehow I expect crapita to weather this economic downturn if all their projects work this way.

  18. Paul


    This may be the first time this has happened with a dead pupil, but hundreds of pupils leave or change schools after enrolling in September. Has it not been brought to Capita's attention that schools are routinely sending letters to pupils who have left despite apparently being deleted from the schools live records?

  19. Allan Dyer Silver badge

    Doctor's Certificate?

    Does SIMS suffer the same problem in cases of long-term illness? Perhaps the school administrator should have entered the death certificate as a Doctor's certificate, after all, that's what it is.

    The title mislead me... it should be "truancy letter" I was expecting it to be an attendance certificate for the pupil, which could have been funny, if sick, and open up the possibility of accusing the school of "preventing lawful burial of a body", or something. This is just... sad.

  20. Steve Foster

    Capita strike again!

    The only surprise is that they didn't also accuse her of watching TV without a licence.

  21. Tony Green

    Crapita strikes again

    No surprise to readers of Private Eye that Craptia are yet again responsible for a cock-up. How they manage to KEEP getting government contracts with their appalling record is a mystery.

  22. Andy Watt
    Thumb Down

    It's an example in a different sphere, but...

    This is why a national DNA database is a crap idea. Imagine a small human error (in software design, or someone forgets to sync up something, etc) which results in you being fingered for a murder or rape, and your life is ruined because of some automatic matching software which may or may not be accurate according to standards you may have trouble contradicting...

    the DNA database computer would effectively be "deep thought"... incontravertible, all-knowing - at least to a jury of your peers.

    Best case, the DNA database is proven to be utterly unreliable and we pay a fortnue for a crap white elephant which is less useful that when it only contained known felons.

    Worst case, we have 20 years of miscarraiges of justice and an intransigent police force and justice community who won't listen.

    This story just goes to show how databases + human error = terrible _individual_ stories.

  23. Jeff

    Lazy Cow

    She'll never get anywhere in this world with an attitude like that!

  24. Ross Luker

    Not the computer's fault

    The Capita system may have printed the letter, but it wasn't the numpty that stuffed it in an envelope without looking...

  25. Luis Ogando


    Busineses and organisations have been using 'computer error' -themed excuses for misguided correspondence for two decades now. How is it we can laud over our technological advancements in medicine, space exploration and criminology, yet we are still not capable of checking if a letter is being sent to the wrong people?

    This is NOT a computer error. This is a HUMAN error and the sooner these incompetents stop blaming everything other than themselves the sooner we can actually move civilisation forward a bit!


  26. Mike

    What's the problem?

    Surely the kid would have no problem getting a note from their mum then?

    Seriously, if you want to "save costs and drive efficency" you use computers and software, if these don't work properly then it doesn't remove your own responsibility for the task, regardless of who you pay to do the work for you it's still your responsibility (yes you can blame somebody else for the failing, but it's still your responsibility).

  27. Jemma

    @ Jeff

    SDS (Sudden Death Syndrome) is soo not funny - thats someones daughter you are talking about - please show some respect.

    I remember when I was 11 and one of the 6 year olds in the school just dropped dead - it totally shattered her family - none of the girls were ever the same. Let alone the parents. Going through that again because some cheapass outsourcing company screwed things up makes things 100 times worse.

    I lost my partner recently at 22 years old - she was diagnosed with cancer at 15 and fought with everything she had. It should never have happened, but I would hate to make any sort of comment like you did and cheapen someones memory like that - where the parents or siblings of this girl might see it.

    Again, I'd ask you to please show some respect for this family... and if anyone feels like nailing up Capita Execs to the wall of their HQ by their intimates ... you have my blessing!

  28. Anonymous Coward

    No they didn't

    "Capita apologise to stunned parents"

    They most certainly did not.. they asked the school to do it for them which stinks.

    Frankly the UK director and the board should go to the parents house, cap in hand and admit that their software is shit and they are all going to give a month of their salary to the charity of the parents choice for causing such distress.

    Once again a company who churn out shite products as cheaply as possible so that they can maximise their profits show that that they really have no fucking clue about real life.

  29. Wabberjocky

    Not reasonable to blame it on human error

    The school has over 800 pupils. Why would anyone expect an admin assistant to recognise a particular name, especially since the school had done the right thing and taken her off the roll?

    In any case, the pay offered to school admin assistants is barely enough to attract someone who can breathe, let alone someone who can think. It's probably because all the funding is going to Crapita.

    If the school erred in any way it was in having any faith at all in the system that the LEA foisted on them

  30. Michael B.


    I told my wife, who has to use that POS every day, about this story and her first reaction was one of surprise. She was surprised that the school involved had even managed to get SIMS to print that letter never mind it sending a letter to a dead girl.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Re "If SIMS is in anyway representative of software used in government, there's no hope. Mine's the one with the passport and one-way tickets to, well, anywhere will do."

    Sadly it probably is.

    Where I work (which shall remain nameless), we bought an off the shelf system for a project. The man who suggested the software didn't check whether it scaled well. It didn't and was designed for far less data thanwe were planning to store.

    The manager's solution? Sue the supplier for so much money that they promptly folded, thus guaranteeing a total lack of support for the system and eventually having to replace the system with one that is far from perfect, but at least works..

    And yes, I do work for a moderately large public organisation.

  32. David Pollard
    Thumb Down

    @ Ross Luker @Luis Ogando et al.

    If tasks are denatured with overlays of procedure and mechanisation then it's fairly obvious that mistakes like this will happen. Computers are a useful servant but a hideous master, as the saying goes.

    The teaching staff are probably so busy with league table assessments, duty of care assessments and other assorted paperwork introduced by political meddlers that posting of the now mandatory attendance record has been delegated to someone who doesn't actually know the children.

    There has been human error as well as a software one. The human error was the assumption that procedure is more important than process; that rules, regulations, check-sheets and computers are a substitute for personal interaction.

    But wait for clarification and reassurance from Westminster: once the national child database is up and running and connected to all the other databases, errors such as this will become much less frequent.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Computers should not be used by governments

    for control of the populace. It is morally wrong, the first time was IBM and the holocaust.

    Computers should only be used to improve service without holding distinct records on any person.

    Anything else is wrong, period.

    All developers and admins should sign a form of hippocratic oath to that affect, anyone working on a government database that can be used to control the populace is a traitor to the people and humanity.

  34. Kevin

    Data protection act.

    States - "Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date."

    Or was complying with the law not part of the original bid for the work, and perhaps added as a billable change request later...

    Mind you - how most of these consultancies manage to comply with the rest of the DPA for instance "not transmitting the data outside of the EU" whilst developing the systems off shore is beyond me...

  35. Martin Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    I'm getting sick of the offensive knee-jerk reactions....

    ...of many of the commenters on El Reg.

    "but some fucking numpty had to put the bloody letter in an envelope."

    You have NO IDEA of how many letters went out. It could have been a pile of a couple of hundred, including standard letters about school uniform or such-like. It won't have been just one.

    For all you know, it could have been some temp covering for someone who was ill with stress, because of people like you spending their time swearing at them for something that wasn't their fault.

    But don't consider that. Just blame the fucking numpty.

  36. Damien Thorn
    IT Angle

    error detected USER

    Well the software works fine - its the users in this case who need a swift kick up the arse.

    the dead girl was NOT in school and as a result had poor attendance. that was specifically the computers job and it did it perfectly well.

    The humans on the other hand had one job which they fucked up, to tell the computer about the dead girl.

    its not rocket science.

  37. Graham Marsden

    "Originally published at Kablenet"...?

    Kablenet Publication date: 27/03/2009 09:50:45

    Err, so how come I managed to e-mail your news desk about this at 12:32 on the 25th with this link to a BBC story

  38. RW
    Thumb Down

    The real mistake

    is clearly one of bad system design. Whoever thought SIMS up evidently didn't work their way through a list of possible events affecting students like (a) died and (b) moved to another school and (c) emigrated to another country.

    All of these events should lead to cession of automatic communications with, or regarding, affected students, while still allowing one-off matters like printing out a transcript.

    This is such an elementary mistake to make, you have to wonder just where Capita is finding their employees.

    In fact, it's not a mistake: it's just stupid downright incompetence.

  39. Wabberjocky
    Thumb Down

    @Damien Thorn

    Which bits of "Megan's name had been taken off the school roll when she died and removed from the main school database" and "Capita had acknowledged that there is a problem with part of its software and is working to remedy it, because they realised that it could affect other schools" are particularly difficult to understand?

  40. Armus Squelprom

    Stop squabbling, you guys (& gals)

    It's a sad mistake, could've been avoided with more care at several stages of the process. Hopefully will now be fixed. Let's move on.

    (NB I heartily despise Crapita, this isn't intended to defend their position).

  41. Martin Usher

    Anyone ask the Obvious?

    This software must be a relic from the old days of timeshare systems. What its doing in a UK school deserves some thought since they never used to have these systems back 30years ago when this type of software would have been developed. (And they certainly wouldn't have outsourced the work.)

    Now, we're all IT types. Let's think about this a minute. A high school has maybe 2000 pupils, say 5000 to be generous (keep track of old pupils). You need to keep contact information and attendance information on this lot, information that would be difficult to put in more than a thousand bytes or so per individual. This 'database' could be run on a modern cellphone (although it would be difficult to hook the VT100s up to it!)

    This is a SCAM folks. Someone has sweet talked the government into foisting legacy IT systems and work on the school system. Great for Capita, not so good for school budgets (they really need to spend the money on stuff like teachers and buildings).

  42. raving angry loony

    blame game

    Easier to blame the computer than to blame the utter lack of caring or quality control on the part of the schools who use the system, the programmers who wrote the system, or the company that profits from the system.

    Me? I blame management. It's ALWAYS their fault, one way or another. Unfortunately, shit never sticks to those bastards.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    poor design

    How many simultaneous users do you think a school has for SIMS? What do you think the throughput of data is? Not that many and not much.

    So why the need to replicate data within the SIMS system, why are they having multiple databases?

    Any application they write should be able to fetch the data from a single database quite adequately.

    Is the system really that complicated that in order to facility the design by the designers, they've partitioned it to have multiple databases hosted on different machines and replicate data? I doubt it.

    As I said right at the start, poor system design.

  44. John Smith Gold badge

    @Martin Usher

    "This 'database' could be run on a modern cellphone "

    Looks like they sub-contracted the "Design" work to that well bunch of con-sultants, "Bolton and Lashup."

  45. Tim Bates

    This makes me feel better...

    I work for a school in NSW, Australia... And you can bet the software we have to deal with is just as dodgy.

    And to those who suggest it's bad software for storing the info in multiple databases.... If schools over there are anything like the NSW public ones, there is a mandated database that data MUST be in, followed by piles of 3d party tools that can't write to the mandatory database but are required to maintain sanity.

    Making things worse, the NSW department of education now has 2 databases that MUST be entered into, but one feeds into the other for enrollment details. So there's 2 levels for student info, and some details don't transfer over correctly, which leads to them not going into the 3rd party stuff. Brilliant.

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