Email chaos for families waiting for school admissions news

The date of March 1 was hovering over tens of thousands of families for months: it was National Offers Day, the day we would, at last, find out the future of our children’s secondary education.

After months of uncertainty – compounded by the problems many parents in Walsall experienced when the Schools Adjudicator changed the admissions criteria for one secondary school one week before the preference form deadline – we were ready for the outcome.

Serco, the organisation that runs education services in Walsall, had set up an email notification system for those parents who wanted to know as early as possible which secondary school their child would be attending.

There would, we were assured, an email dropping into the inbox at approximately 00.01 on Monday, March 1.

It beat waiting another day for the news, so I duly signed up.

Many parents kept themselves awake and sat at their computer at midnight, nervously waiting to open their email accounts. (I didn’t; I fell  asleep, despite efforts to stay awake.)

It was 00.01. Nothing. They waited and refreshed the incoming mail box. Nothing. 00.10; 00.15; 00.25; 00.45; 01.00. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

After a fitful night, I eventually reached for the laptop at 5am. Nothing? This can’t be right. There was a slight wave of panic: did I fill in the form correctly? Did I ask for email notification? I checked my print out. Yes, everything was in order.

So where was it? It was not until 7.30am that friends began to text each other. No one had received the promised email.

The children started to worry; we became anxious. It had worked last year, why not this?

It seems Walsall was not the only place to experience technical hitches.

In Northamptonshire, more than 5,000 parents hoping to be able to log onto the education website run by Capita on Monday morning found it had crashed and were unable to get the news they were after.

In Nottingham there were similar technical problems, which left parents chewing their nails until 3pm when the hitch was sorted out and emails were eventually sent.

Thousands of anxious parents in London and Surrey were left without the news they had been waiting for after Pan London Admission Systems, a website for the 33 London boroughs and Surrey, also suffered problems.

In the grand scale of things, these types of hitches might be considered small fry – and anyone who has not gone through the process might well scoff at parents over-reacting.

Believe me: once you are embroiled in the whole procedure, any delay is unbearable.

Perhaps a better way should be introduced. Instead of the piecemeal, drip-drip leak of information of who has a place where, perhaps letters should be sent to primary schools who should then distribute them to parents and carers on a single day at a given time.

I suspect there will never be an entirely fool-proof system, but this year has proven that technology isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Serco has yet to comment about its technology failure.

3 thoughts on “Email chaos for families waiting for school admissions news

  1. stymaster

    I’d question if it was a failure, as in an actual failure of a system or server. It doubtless was a failure of the ‘system’ in the non-technical meaning of the word though- if it wasn’t possible to let parents know ASAP then that should have been stated.

    I don’t know about the numbers involved here, but trust me, trying to deliver email en-masse reliably and quickly is not an easy challenge. Spam filters, blacklisting, greylisting, rate controls etc all play havoc. The only people that seem to achieve it are the actual spammers.

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  2. Martin

    I can’t help finding this all rather amusing – if your kid goes to school in Walsall you have 4 choices
    ‘barely acceptable’ (eg:Aldridge, Streetly, Barr Beacon, St Francis); ‘poor’ (eg:Blue Coat,Pool Hayes,Shire Oak, St Thomas More); ‘absolute rubbish’ (eg: Alumwell, J Lekie, Shelfield) and ‘unavailable to local plebs’ (QM girls, QM Boys). I’m ignoring the Academy or the loony christian fundamentalist school because no-one understands the criteria for either.
    It isn’t worth losing any sleep for any of these – abandon hope, ye who enter here.

    On the other hand, a friend of ours paid a fortune to have her kids tutored to within an inch of their little lives and made them sit every entrance exam, King Edward’s, Wolverhampton Grammar, QE, Sutton Girls, the lot.
    She had kittens waiting to hear which of these august establishments she’d bought a place for. I don’t know which she got but it was fun to watch her squirm for 48 hours.

    Mine will go to Streetly, and I will badger, pester, nag and cajole any and every member of staff who comes into my orbit to do their level best for my kids.
    It still isn’t a good school though, and I have no confidence whatsoever in Serco’s ability to make it one, nor do I think the council can manage Serco in such a way as to make it happen.

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  3. Jayne Howarth

    Thank you Stymaster and Martin for your comments.

    I understand what you are saying, Stymaster, and I’m awaiting the comments from Serco eagerly.

    Martin – I know what you say about Walsall schools, which is probably why so many of us were having kittens about which one they’d got into – was it the bad one – or the worse one?

    The borough hasn’t exactly got a great reputation when it comes to delivering excellent secondary education (you only have to look at the progress made from when children leave primary to when they do GCSEs).

    It’s a huge gamble filling all five preferences with selective schools – there’s no way I’d have done it.

    My daughter was tutored from September to December, so she could understand how the papers worked and she sat the QM exam. The paper was completely different anyway and she didn’t get in. We got our second choice, which I’m happy with and believe wholeheartedly that she’ll be better off than in such an academic hothouse.

    I hope your child succeeds and – more importantly – is happy at Streetly.

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