[int. kitchen, breakfast time, child and parent at table]

Child: What day is it?

Parent: Why, darling, it’s the best of all days. It’s Offer Day when we find out if you can go to the school we picked.

Child: Is it hard to find out?

Parent: Oh no, sweetie, it’s so simple it’s almost fun.

[Manic laughter, end scene]

~

‘It’s so simple it’s almost fun’, said no parent, ever.

Yes, it is offer day and I like thousands of other parents up and down the country have been waiting (in fact, some might still be waiting) to find out if our child can go to the school we preferred. For us, it’s reception year for our younger child and the school is a local one that his older brother already attends, a situation which is likely to be in common with many other families today (aside – we got our preferred place! Yay!).

The process for those who haven’t been through it is that in the year before your child is due to start or change school (eg move from a primary to a secondary) you have a few months in which to apply for their place. Most council’s have now tried to channel shift this from paper-based to online, with differing offers of phone application or support depending which authority you apply to. You put down a number of preferred choices, submit, and then you wait. And you wait. And you wait a bit more.

For primary level applications (reception, infant, junior, primary) applications usually close in January and then everyone gets notified of the place they’ve been given on the same day in April. Today is that day.

There is a certain amount of nerves that go with this process – will my child go to the school I want, will I have two children at two different schools – and a small amount of helplessness too as the fate is very much in the hands of the council. Unless everyone is going to be guaranteed a place at the school they want then this is always going to exist. However, from today’s experience (and my flashback to similar the last time I did this) I think there is much improvement council’s could make to mitigate these nerves and make the process painless for parents even where the outcome is disappointing.

Wearing both my local gov digital professional and my CitizenSarah hats (jaunty) it is obvious that this is a process crying out for some user-centric service design.

Admissions is a huge task and I don’t underestimate the amount of work that teams in council’s are putting in to gather the applications, sort the data, make the allocations and then notify parents and schools. I don’t know whether they feel the process and the technology helps or hinders them in this task (maybe teams at different councils would answer differently).

As a parent / carer making the application for a child the process could be pretty simple – choose a few schools (most people know at least their first and second choice because of locality, siblings, school standards, faith etc), enter the child’s details, enter their own details, submit, get notified as quickly and conveniently as possible when allocation made. In my experience the technology or process rarely feel like they are supporting me in this task.

 So, redesigning the whole thing so the users needs in the process are met would be great but that takes time. But that takes time, and a serious commitment to looking at the tech behind it (which is probably Big IT as part of a wider contract) and a shift of perspective from business to user need. There might be some quick wins though that could improve things while we all warm up to that.

1. Make applying easy

There’s going to be some limitations whatever technology you use but make sure you’ve done whatever you can to create the best user experience within those boundaries.

Think and test the language on your web pages, in the application form and in any contact that comes out of it (emails and suchlike). And when I say test, I mean with real people.

Make the fonts big enough to read. Make the colour contrast web safe. Apply good practice to the form fields, structure and design.

Then test it with some more real people. Then act on what they tell you.

And then push the boundaries with your tech supplier to see if you can make more changes to make it even better.

2. Join things up

First things first: update your web content in good time. People will be looking in advance of Offer Days and they’re doing this because they’re nervous and trying to be prepared. Help them.

Then help them more by sending social media, reminder emails, press releases etc in the run up.

Plan appropriate comms for each channel and make the journey from each point to the information they need (like an updated web page, or the log on screen for the application system) as short as possible.

3. Tell them as soon as possible

Looking across Twitter and Facebook today it seems that some councils made the allocations available online from around 12.30am on Thursday 16 April while others didn’t let parents find out until 8am, 9.30am, 4pm and later.

There must be process and internal reasons for the timings and most people probably won’t know that someone in a neighbouring area has been told quicker than them.

But, thinking about the user, why not make the timing convenient to them? That might mean outside of your normal office hours, it might mean that you send the emails at the same time that parents can log on to see the offer in the application system.

4. Talk to them

People are chatting on social media about their experiences and their worries, and after allocation probably their relief or disappointment. Probably a lot of them are having that conversation in front of you, on your profiles, on posts you made.

It sounds really obvious but make sure you join that conversation, and that you do so appropriately. Yes, it’s a process that needs to be followed and you need to signpost people and remain impartial but there are ways to do that with a human tone and there are ways to do that which are ‘computer says no’.

So, try and get your tone and response right and maybe prepare for this in advance. Knowing that people are going to ask or comment online means you should be geared up to get the right responses to them as quickly as possible.

Listen to what people are telling you about this year’s experience and then see how that converts into things you can change for the better for next year.

5. Seriously, think about re-designing the experience

The quick wins are well worth doing but ultimately they are lipstick on a pig. It’s time to take a deep breath and think about approaching online school applications and allocations where the digital service to the user isn’t a tag on module to technology intended for a back end process, but rather something that makes a nerve-wracking experience into something so simple it’s almost fun.

~

Let’s not name names but how was your experience of school applications and allocation? How could it have been better for you?

You can leave a comment or find me on Twitter.

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