DfE seeks ‘better experience’ for website visitors

The Department for Education is set to improve its digital services for schools from next month under a new £560,000 scheme, as heads face time-consuming battles to submit data because portals keep crashing.

Processes such as data collection from schools, applying for a teaching vacancy, for a school place or for free school meals’ eligibility for pupils could all be simplified.

The DfE is seeking a company that will create a “better experience” for its website users to “transform from a policy department to a delivery department” for schools, according to a contract for the scheme.

A source, who did not wish to be named, told Schools Week the department’s current digital services are “awful – always crashing and difficult to use”.

School business managers in particular struggle to submit their budget returns to the Education and Skills Funding Agency because the portal crashes, said the source. Business managers also have to submit financial data to numerous portals across the DfE’s site, but each has different log-ins.

The way we collect it and offer it back to schools could be approached differently

Submitting information to keep designations as teaching schools or national leaders of education is also “time-consuming”, they added.

The department has 400 digital services for education and last year identified 250 that it wants to improve during the initial stage of the project.

A blog from that year stated the department found it needed to “look deeper into several areas”, particularly how it collects data from schools. “The way we collect it and offer it back to schools could be approached differently.”

The chosen partner will test new ways of using DfE services over two months as part of a £160,000 contract. If successful, these will be rolled out over four months as part of the £400,000 contract. The contract is due to start on February 11.

It follows Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, writing in a blog in November that he wants to replace the “traditional divide between ‘policy’ and ‘delivery’” by bringing people from both backgrounds on to the same team.

According to the unnamed source, a new team was set up as a “one-stop shop” for schools’ policy and delivery before Christmas, headed by senior civil servant Andrew McCully.

Jonathan Simons, director of policy and public relations consultancy Public First, said Slater’s idea to merge the teams was “very sensible” because historically there has been “competition between policy people and delivery people” at the DfE.

But he added “change will only happen if the DfE understands how the Education and Skills Funding Agency, regional school commissioner teams, local authorities and schools will actually put the plans into practice”.