How a solution for sharing data on eligibility for free school meals provided a foundation for other digital services, and provides lessons for their successful development, by programme director Amanda Derrick OBE
Checking eligibility for free school meals is a valuable service in itself, but its benefits are now extending beyond the original purpose as it provides the basis for a solution re-used for three other services – with the potential to go much further.
It provides a lesson worth the attention of the whole public sector, showing that it is possible to re-use what works, reduce the effort and expense of developing new digital solutions and obtain big savings for public authorities.
The Eligibility Checking Service (ECS) was delivered by the Connect Digitally Programme for the Department of Education (DfE) in 2011. It provides real time checking of eligibility for free school meals, enabling data sharing between 174 councils, three central government agencies, 24,000 schools and millions of parents/carers. Its development involved councils across England and Wales, six central government agencies, more than 50 suppliers and led to improved outcomes for millions of parents and children.
Early in its life Cabinet Office auditors confirmed a sixfold return on the investment programme, since when ECS has been adapted and re-used for three other services: Two Year Old Funding (2YO), the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP) and 30 hours Extended Learning Entitlement.
The total number of checks has now soared above 1 million per month and the return on the initial investment has increased many times. Just this month, John Jackson, chief executive of London Grid for Learning, tweeted that its pupil premium checker, which uses the ECS, had enabled schools to identify claims of £2.2 million.
So what lessons could be learnt, and what is the current challenge?
Never start with the technology
Connect Digitally began with the desired policy outcomes. DfE wanted to deliver a non-stigmatising, real time eligibility checking service for parents which could be used by across England and Wales to ensure that eligible pupils received the free school meal as soon as they were eligible.
The purpose was to replace an outdated and hugely bureaucratic paper-based service which often required several months to process. This informed everything that was done in developing the technology solution.
Keep it simple
Connect Digitally focussed on minimising complexity and establishing a clear purpose.
We identified generic issues relevant to all councils, such as data sharing and legal issues, silo working within councils, and new technology such as the use of web services.
We also provided easy Steps to Success guides, checklists and How To guides. We simplified the functionality required for schools, parents, councils and central government into modular blocks, so we could work with suppliers and various consortia to develop and to test a number of minimum viable products (MVPS) in safe and controlled alphas and betas.
To move from rhetoric to reality we needed to build in a fast but controlled way; so we built in small chunks at a time with different partners.
All this enabled Connect Digitally to deliver the solution to fulfil that desired outcome.
Continuity of leadership
Continuity of leadership was another key factor for success. Connect Digitally’s development of the ECS built on and scaled up the lessons learned from the very successful eAdmissions National Project.
The Connect Digitally team believed in shared leadership and responsibility and Caroline Bimson, now director of education at Atkins, was a senior member of the team based within DfE. When the programme finished in 2012, Caroline, working for Atkins, was able to continue to build on the Connect Digitally legacy and support DfE in the development of the three further services.
Communicate well and establish trust
By communicating effectively about real and imagined barriers and potential solutions’ and honestly about benefits and disbenefits, Connect Digitally led a shared understanding, built trust and encouraged a collaborative approach across all stakeholders.
Scaling up digital innovation
This was one of the most unique features of Connect Digitally, the ability to transfer solutions and best practice across all the councils in England and Wales involved in delivering free school meals.
We were able to transfer knowledge by concentrating our efforts on what added value, working equally in all partnerships and by working in an agile and adaptive fashion.
Our efforts to bring more councils onboard involved enabling them to see that the alpha and beta versions were working and offered benefits to all, and providing the guides to help them accelerate their efforts in developing the service. We also provided a set of open source products which allowed for local variations and input.
The current challenge
Changes in the autonomy of schools, and the reduction in the role of the local authority due to the introduction of free schools and academies, have led to the slowing down of the end-to-end digital transformation.
Schools, councils and council trading bodies are on the whole utilising the transformed checking process of the ECS, but they are no longer passing these benefits on to the parents by delivering a digital real time service. This is disappointing, as the parent-facing digital service has been shown destigmatise the need for free school meals and to increase the take-up of the benefit.
This is why we need councils and schools to collaborate and work with suppliers to provide the final digital front end for all parents.
But there is still a lot to celebrate in the ECS, and we can build on the success. If we learn what works and use it again, we can build faster and more effectively in the future.