Council websites get A* for secondary schools applications test
Council websites tested for their performance in providing online applications for secondary schools have passed with flying colours. 78% of the 27 county councils tested provide a good or very good service.
The vast majority of parents and carers make secondary schools applications online these days -86% according to the latest figures available from the Department for Education*, ranging from 100% in Islington and Nottinghamshire to 15% in Rotherham. Only five counties fall below 90% of applications online.
Given that nearly half a million online applications were made in 2015, during a three-month window, and given the stress and anxiety the process can cause where places in good schools (or any school) are oversubscribed, this is an important task for local education departments to get right.
Most councils have tried hard to sell the benefits of applying online and do so effectively, with clear deadline dates and obvious links to the online application form.
However, according to the task report (free to all to view on the Better Connected website) there is too much information buried in very lengthy PDFs, with key information, such as catchment area arrangements, often hidden in these documents. A better approach is to present the most important concepts on the web pages and then direct people to the PDF guidance documents for more in-depth explanations. Otherwise applicants are faced with a 60+ page document without guidance on which bits they actually need to read.
Most of the sites recommended in the report - East Sussex, Kent, Lancashire, Surrey, and West Sussex - have thought through the customer journey and get the balance right between pdf and webpages.
Some sites exhibited a lack of attention to detail that is crucial for a task of such importance to those undertaking it, with previous year’s applications guidance surfacing, poor labeling and typos indicating a slapdash approach.
Key questions from the survey that were less well answered included ‘Is there information about the school's latest inspection? (67% scored yes) and ‘Can I find out whether I can apply for a school outside my catchment?’ (also 67%). On the latter issue, one site provided a "catchment finder" but no explanation of how catchments work or whether applicants have to stick to ‘their’ catchment area.
Some sites exhibited the tendency for councils to write in officialese about things of little direct relevance to the user, eg ‘The Published Admission Number is set to maximise parental preference within the resources available and to ensure that there are sufficient school places across the local area.’
The task reviewer also notes that where maps of schools and their catchments are used they need to very easy to use: cluttered clusters of pins with no way to filter by type of school means a lot of scrolling around and clicking randomly.
* DfE data relate to applications for entry in September 2015, whereas the Better Connected survey relates to the applications process provided for September 2016 entry.
Web and digital professionals interested in hearing more about the findings of the Better Connected surveys as well as wider trends and best practice in local authority web development, should sign up for the Learning from Better Connected event on May 25th in Birmingham.
This is part of Better Connected Live a major new two day event that will place the Better connected research in the context digital councils, austerity and devolution.
The headline conference Digital, devolution and the re-invention of local public services featuring presentations from a series of local authority chief executives and CIOs, as well as leading practitioners in digital transformation, will take place on May 24.
A series of events for service managers will take place across the two days, involving adult social care (in partnership with ADASS Informatics Network); planning (in partnership with the Planning Portal; waste management (in partnership with the Institution of Wastes Management); and libraries (in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians).
A series of Better Connected awards will also be presented at Better Connected Live.
Notes for editors
All councils can access headline results from Better connected surveys, but details of individual council reviews are available to Socitm Insight subscribers only (around 75% of all councils).
Any employee of a Socitm Insight subscribing council can register for free with Socitm.net and then get access to the detailed results for their council.
Vicky Sargent, Better connected programme
Tel: 07726 601139