Apply for school – four months on

We received 6300 school applications and there were problems with 23 (all of which were fixed promptly)

Back in October last year, I wrote about the new way you can apply for school in Brighton & Hove.

At the time, it was early days for our system and we had received around 1100 applications. Since then, the number has grown considerably. To date, 6300 applications have been made online. It’s covered the two major application rounds of the year – reception year for primary and year 7 for secondary – and the form has proven to be completely reliable.

Reception year applications closed on 15th January at midnight. In the lead up to the deadline, a few customers experienced problems either setting up their account or resetting their password. In total, 23 customers were affected. After some help from me and my team, 20 customers successfully completed their online application. The remaining 3 customers submitted paper applications by post. The 23 customers who needed help represented less than 1% of all the customers who applied for Reception year; 0.77% to be exact. This is a tiny percentage of the total number of applications.

Along with this, the form has been used frequently throughout the day. I analysed the usage of it between 15th December and 15th January. During this period, the form was being used at least three times an hour between 6 am and midnight, every day.

It is fair to say that the form has been a success and there are a number of reasons for why this the case. First and foremost, our Agile approach to development meant we could identify bugs and fix them quickly. It also enabled us to identify enhancements and changes that could be introduced quickly, user tested and released to enhance the user experience.

Secondly, testing. You must test, test, test and test again. If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for failure. Even though we were developing fast, this doesn’t mean testing can be skipped. It is an essential part of the Agile, iterative process. Miss it at your peril!

And last but not least, the customers themselves. We have received tons of feedback since the release of the form, including some really useful feature suggestions that we’ve developed and released in new iterations.

Whilst I’m chuffed with the success of the form so far, there is always room for improvement. Our team will be addressing this in forthcoming updates to the form that will make user experience even better and bring more benefits to the service too. Watch this space!

Checking identities, saving time and money

The deadline to apply for a Year 7 place at secondary school passed last week. This year parents applied using a website developed by the Digital First team. This new website included several innovations designed to save time and public money.

One innovation we are particularly proud of is address validation. This is incredibly important. For example, some school places depend on where a child lives, so we needed to be able to confirm their address.

The old system involved an officer looking up the child’s parent in the council tax database. When dealing with thousands of applications, this can take a lot of time and public money.

The new website takes advantage of APIs between different systems to automate this. An API is a way for one computer system to talk to another and exchange data.

Firstly, we talk to the Brighton & Hove Local Land and Property Gazetteer (LLPG) database. This is a list of every address in the area controlled by a local authority. Every address in this database has a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). This allows us to confirm an address exists, and it’s exact location.

Secondly, we talk to the council tax database. If you pay council tax for a property in Brighton & Hove, then we know if you are resident there or not.

We know the applicant’s name and the UPRN of their address, so we check if they match our council tax records. Records are manually checked by a council officer if they don’t match.

This ensures the data we have is clean, and that school places are correctly allocated.

We estimate that this one feature alone saves a council officer around three months work.

A new way to apply for school

Four weeks ago in mid-September, we released the new school application form for live applications. Its release was a milestone for Digital First. It’s the first product we’ve made that has completely replaced another.

Schools Team
Our multi skilled team

We built it in response to feedback we were getting from customers. They were telling us that the existing application portal was hard to use. One bugbear was that you had to supply your council tax account number. The schools admissions team needed it to confirm that you live at your address. Few people know this off the top of their head, so it was definitely an inconvenience.

After working out the user needs, we sat down and made a rough prototype in an afternoon. At first, we felt it would be easy to build. But the more we developed it, the more it became clear that it was far more complicated.

To make matters worse, extra requirements emerged that were essential. This forced us to rebuild everything at a very late stage. The whole team worked flat out to hit the deadline. It went to the wire, but we pulled it off. It was a true collaborative effort to get it live.

To date, the new form has been a real success. The council receives around 8000 school applications a year. So far, over 1100 customers have made an application using the form, with no major issues reported.

We’ve received lots of positive feedback and this is unusual. Usually, the council only hears from customers when there are problems. When you don’t hear anything, it’s usually a sign that everything is working well; no news is good news. So, for people to go out of their way to provide positive feedback shows we must be doing something right.

One of the questions in the feedback form is ‘How could we improve the new website for you?’. A customer who fed back said ‘It’s already perfect’ and that a friend had recommended the form to them. When it comes to feedback, it doesn’t get any better than this.  The improved form gives a significantly improved customer experience, which is exactly what we are trying to do.

There’s one thing that tops it though. Customers don’t need to tell us their council tax account number anymore. This is all done in the form which cross-checks automatically. Just this feature alone saves the service around three months of one officer’s time.  It’s a win for our users and our service.