Councils have only a few months to go before they must have launched an online school admissions service. The idea is that all parents looking for school places - whether primary or secondary - should have the option of applying online.
Some 150 councils are expected to have systems in place by September, under the joint Department for Communities & Local Government and Department for Education & Skills project.
e-admissions flagship council and 60% of parents already apply online. According to Hertfordshire's director of children, schools and families, John Harris, some 58 authorities already offer online admissions and many more are on target to meet the deadline. Some are teaming up to move things along, including 33 London authorities collaborating via a shared web portal.
So if your council is running late what can you do to chivvy things along?
1 Bridge the digital divide
Parents in deprived areas may not have access to the internet at home - so Hertfordshire's John Harris says it's up to councils to bridge the so-called 'digital divide'. Hertfordshire wanted to target parents in its most deprived ward: Bedwell, in Stevenage. It arranged drop-in sessions at community centres, libraries and schools where parents and carers could complete the online forms, with help on hand if they were having difficulties. Parents received letters from schools promoting the service, and council staff attended school open evenings. This was backed up with posters, calendars and leaflets left at community venues, plus coverage in the local media.
These efforts helped generate a nearly four-fold increase in take-up of online admissions in Bedwell (from 17% in 2004 to 65% in 2005) whereas the control ward, Peartree, which was supported by less-focused marketing, achieved a three-fold rise in take up from 15% to 49%.
'It's important to identify ways in which people who may not have access to the internet at home can get access,' says Mr Harris. 'It's about picking up the community access points - the other thing that really worked was getting local councillors involved so they raised awareness with community groups. We got other services on board, we got schools to own the process and made sure we had briefings and open evenings to engage with parents.'
2 Spread the word
You should set up a marketing campaign by July for the following year's admissions round, according to East Riding of Yorkshire Council. It should also be simple and cheap.
East Riding began implementing online admissions in 2004, receiving 35 applications for the 2005 intake. Last year the marketing team devised a strategy for e-admissions, testing the results of cinema advertisements, personal attendances at local events and direct mail.
By far the best methodwas sending a letter to all parents due to be looking for new schools for their children. Accompanying the letter was an online admissions leaflet.
A survey of parents/carers last year found that half had heard about e-admissions from the direct mail letter, while only one in 100 had seen the expensive cinema adverts. Schools themselves are an important source of information - quoted by one in five parents/carers responding to the survey.
'Getting buy-in from schools is important, as is ensuring customer service staff are trained in how to use the system to offer a mediated service to the public,' says Allison Brown, East Riding's IT development manager.
3 Make sure your site is secure
National guidelines set out a checklist that your online admissions system should stick to - including the
industry-standard for secure data encryption.
Your site should use the secure socket layer protocol to protect confidential data, says Norfolk CC's head of pupil and student support, Richard Snowden.
Security is important, he adds, because parents need to be confident that their child's details remain private, and admissions staff need the correct information to do their job properly.
He says: 'Councils have got to be sure that the confidential information about children's addresses is secure, and that the data isn't corrupted or damaged.'
Schools admissions teams should also take advice from the IT team on how best to set up the servers and data to minimise the chances of the new online service presenting a security risk for the council's IT infrastructure - for example by making sure it isn't vulnerable to viruses.
'We've got the web software on one server and the web data on another. All our back office information is completely separate from that because that's the way our IT experts said it would work best,' says Mr
Snowden. 'But the advice will vary from council to council.'
4 Keep testing
and adapting your website
Hertfordshire has been continually updating and improving its online admissions service since it launched in 2001 as a nursery schools pilot. The county has been the lead authority for e-admissions since February 2004, and puts its success down to extensive research into parents' and carers' experiences of using the site, and yearly reviews of the way the online service is marketed.
'You've got to keep updating it, because when you first design a website you will only find out some of the glitches with it or additional things that need to be on it based on people's actual experience of using it,' says John Harris.
'Look at companies such as EasyJet or others with award-winning websites - they're constantly being updated to keep them ahead of the field.'
Asking parents and carers for feedback helped propel e-admissions take-up in Hertfordshire from 22.5% in 2004 to 58% in 2005 -more than doubling within a year. The council asked parents to join focus groups, complete an online survey and take part in web usability studies.
As a result of its survey, Hertfordshire decided to make online admissions easier to find on the main council website, simplify the admissions form and the process, involve schools more in publicising the online service, and promote it better in admissions booklets.
Under the Hertfordshire system, parents can compute the exact distance between their address and a given school. Using the rules chosen in the school's entry criteria, this helps parents avoid applying for places their children are unlikely to get into.
The county's parents seem to love the revamped system - 76% of those who applied online in 2005 said they found the system 'easy' or 'very easy' to use.
5 Allow parents time to change their minds
Devon CC lets people update their application until midnight the day before the admissions deadline. In 2006, Devon received 18% of secondary applications online and 25% of primary - helped by the council's flexible customer-friendly approach.
This is the first year that the council has managed primary school admissions - the process used to be handled by the individual schools, many of them small schools in remote areas who are used to having their own autonomy.
'In promoting the online service we've tried to make it customer friendly. It's better for parents and we can give schools electronic lists of preferences that have been expressed on the same day,' says Karen Howes, deputy admissions manager.
'[Because they were used to having more autonomy] we had to project ourselves to schools as a supporting service, as a way to alleviate some of the drudgery. It's almost a PR exercise.'
The site gives parents as much information as possible to help them decide their three preferences ranked in order. The website includes school designated-area maps, booklets, information about all the schools and their locations admission criteria, links to Department for Education & Skills attainment statistics and Ofsted reports.
If parents are dithering about their choices they can log on with their password to make a change right up to midnight before the deadline - the system keeps the applications in a holding area until everything is finalised. After the deadline, parents wanting to change their minds have to write to or telephone the appropriate admissions officer.
Last year on the schools allocation day, all 1,500 parents who applied online received a personalised email from the nine-strong admissions team, offering the contact number for their admissions officer in case they were unhappy or wanted to discuss things further.
Find out more
e-admissions National Project for case studies and advice on online school admissions: www.eadmissions.org
Hertfordshire CC email@example.com
East Riding Council of Yorkshire
Devon CC firstname.lastname@example.org