Gauteng school applications online - a year on

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What lessons can be learnt from last year's application process?
What lessons can be learnt from last year's application process?

Today marks the second year that the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) is relying on an online application system for Grade 1 and Grade 8 - the years in which children are received into primary school and high school respectively.

The system was launched last year, but couldn't stand up to the user volumes however, leaving many applicants deeply concerned about securing a place at the school of their choice.

Oupa Bodibe, spokesperson for the GDE, candidly discusses the decision-making that took place and the processes implemented in 2016.

"We had realised, from a data perspective, we didn't have sufficient information about space demands [at schools]. As a result we had to project demand by looking at past experiences as well as population growth numbers," he says. "That's not precise information and even the 'current' data we do get comes very late, because it's manual and the districts have to aggregate data from all the schools."

This information allows the GDE to plan to build new classrooms and schools, allocate educators based on subject demands and areas. Such data also enables the GDE to procure stationery and learning and teaching support materials.

"We've also seen parents queuing at schools to submit their forms without any guarantee they'll be accepted. So we decided we needed to use modern tools to help with workflow and to provide ease of access for parents," Bodibe says. "We believe it will also create fairness in the system - any parent in a catchment area will have a fair chance of their application going thorough and being accepted."

He makes it very clear that the online system is not creating new policy or regulations; it's simply applying existing policy - that parents can apply for a place for their children based on their home or work address, or the sibling option can be used if parents already have a child at the school.

Tech challenges

However, Bodibe acknowledges the new system does bring with it an inherent prejudice against applicants without online competence or easy internet access. "We had to ask how to bridge that divide? We requested schools to assist parents who don't have access to submit their information and their forms online."

One thing GDE did last year - "although we didn't do it well," Bodibe admits - was create helpdesks in the districts, where each parent can walk in and be assisted. "This year we will make more physical helpdesks accessible."

Ultimately, the GDE is aiming to create an app, which will work for the high proportion of South Africans who have smartphones. "Community libraries, multipurpose centres and municipalities have WiFi, so those are some of the areas we're looking at to address the digital divide."

Bodibe acknowledges the biggest problem was GDE's servers weren't adjusted for the weight of traffic and simply collapsed at registration time. "This wasn't even applications, people just had to log on to create a profile. We were receiving 6 000 hits per second - so it couldn't cope."

The department then took the decision to scrap initial registration and open only for application on a specified date. On that day, the service was receiving 30 000 hits per second and the system was once again unable to cope. "So that's when SITA, which was hosting this, decided to engage Vodacom, which is better able to deal with these kinds of spikes. We moved across to Vodacom's system, and it stabilised."

While this solved the availability problem, it created a new one. "We had used our EMS system to locate a school geographically on an electronic map. Vodacom has its own geo-location, and we struggled to get the two systems talking to each other - that's why there were stories of children applying and getting in to a school 30km away."

There were additional problems in that the form had been created with the field to allow South African ID numbers to apply - a change had to be made to accommodate foreign nationals' applications too. Another, even bigger problem was that there are some South African children who, for whatever reason, haven't been registered at Home Affairs. "It's a headache and a nightmare, but fortunately, it's a very small proportion of the population," he says.

At the beginning of the year, there were 19 000 unplaced applicants, and at the time of speaking to Bodibe in late February, the most recent information available showed that 15 000 had been placed.

Looking ahead, Bodibe wasn't able to comment on how the system would be rolled out in this year's application cycle. "I can't answer at this stage whether SITA will be increasing our capacity or engaging a service provider. We're still trying to work out some of those bugs. But the online application process is definitely going ahead."

*This article was written earlier this year and first appeared in Public Sector Priorities publication, available with the Brainstorm May issue.

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