20 Apr, 12 | by BMJ
The UK schools regulator Ofsted used to employ a team of people who sent questionnaires to parents if their children’s school was undergoing an inspection.
But last year the process was automated with the launch of Parent View, a website that allows parents to fill in the 12 questions online, and update it if their opinion of a school changes over time.
The site updates daily and a school’s results are publicly visible, so parents considering one for their children can find out what other parents think about the quality of teaching, discipline, leadership, track record on tackling bullying etc.
Parent View took less than three months to develop, including user testing. The team who built it on the Drupal open source platform were asked to deliver a secure and scalable website that could handle sudden peaks in traffic and levels of interaction.
Describing the project at a Drupal for Government event in London this week, project manager Paul Jenkins said the site needed an email authentication process so parents could sign in again and update scores if their opinion about a school changed. They were also asked to suppress results if only one parent had responded about a school.
He added: “Parents used to have to wait for an inspection every few years. It was very ad hoc. A child would come home from school with a paper based survey. An inspector would need to collate the results.
“It was also expensive. There was a team of people stuffing envelopes and collating at the end. Now there are 12 very simple online questions, and because the results are publicly visible, parents can see what other people are saying about a school.”
Drupal was chosen, he said, because Ofsted’s main site is built using it, and the organisation wanted a single sign on for both sites.
Also, as an open source solution, access is free, making it an increasingly popular choice for cash-strapped UK government departments. A number of Cabinet Office sites also use Drupal. So does the White House, World Bank, Open University, Royal Mail, MTV, and Comic Relief. And, since 2011, the BMJ.
Drupal developer Robert Castelo told the event that the ability to re-use components rather the coding from scratch is attractive to organisations like Ofsted, which need to launch sites very quickly.
The Economist’s Drupal project, on the other hand, took longer because the magazine needed to spend more than a year migrating its back archive into the Drupal CMS. The BMJ, with articles dating back to 1840 and reader comments since the late 1990s, needed to undertake a similar exercise.
In some ways the stakes for central government are higher than for other organisations. Civil servants are risk averse by nature, and scarred by the negative headlines of botched digital projects.
Paul Jenkins reminded his audience of the much-hyped www.police.uk site crashing on its first day last year after promising to highlight the nation’s crime hotspots. Eighteen million people an hour tried to log on. The Daily Mail dubbed the outage: Its Crimebotch UK: Outcry as leafy streets labelled crime hotspots on new Home Office website (which crashed as soon as it went live)
That was why, he said, scalability was such an important requirement for Ofsted. Given the fact that most parents stress about getting their children into a decent local school these days, Ofsted’s anxiety was probably right.
David Payne is editor, bmj.com