Digital school closures service in remotest region saves ‘significant’ resources

5 May 2015, 8:40 pm

A council in one of the most remote parts of the UK has launched a service to alert parents and pupils to timely information about school closures is saving the council ‘significant time and effort’.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. This image is used on Undiscovered Scotland under the terms of this license from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia. Highlands Council region from Most of the Highlands’ 300 primary and secondary schools, spread over a large and often rural area, close in winter due to snow, high winds and other bad weather. Last January the council regularly had days when 80 schools and nurseries closed due to snow. But historically, messages about school closures have not been conveyed efficiently.

The service – which took just a fortnight to develop – is triggered by a call from a head teacher to the council, whose responsibility it is to decide whether to close a school. After verifying their identity with a PIN already used to access other services, specially-trained operators log in to the council website CRM and mark the school as closed.

The information is immediately updated and published on the council’s website, showing how many schools and pupils are affected, and automatically triggers email alerts to councillors, cleaning and catering staff and social media accounts. Since December, 222 closure alerts have been issued on social media.

It took just two weeks’ to enable the service, including developing the code and adding an extra field to the website directory to denote ‘closed’ status and the reason for closure. The council worked with its supplier, Jadu using a standard feature of its CMS called Directories.

“It’s a massive improvement for teaching staff”, said Stuart Downie, Web Development Officer at Highlands Council. “Head teachers now have a single point of contact that automatically cancels school meals and associated transport so the indirect savings in wasted time, effort are resources are significant”.

Downie said “we also saved money by developing an in-house solution using existing systems rather than buying a dedicated solution.” And the council’s press office “no longer spends hours confirming which schools were closed and collating closure statistics for press enquiries”.

Last January, during particularly heavy snowfall, the school closures page had 94,000 page views on a single day – more than double the usual amount. In the same month, mobile usage also outstripped desktop, possibly driven by high volumes of pupils accessing school closure information via their mobile phone.

Previously, head teachers would log in to the council website’s Content Relationship Management (CRM) system to update their own school’s closure, but would often forget log in details or patchy internet connectivity in rural places would prevent access.

In future Downie may investigate the use of SMS alerts for closures. “The system could easily be used for any type of office closure” he told Local Digital.

The council, based in Inverness, Scotland, covers a population of 300,000 people spread out over an area of 12,000 sq miles making it the largest local authority by area in the UK.

Watch a video of Stuart Downie’s presentation on the service.