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Choosing the Right School Website - A Balanced Approach

Published on 07/02/19

From our many conversations with schools across the country, it’s clear that school budgets are constantly being squeezed tighter and tighter. With increasing pupil numbers, difficulties relating to teacher retention and the general cost of running a school steadily increasing, it’s apparent that now more than ever, every penny counts when it comes to a school’s financial decisions.

That’s why, when it comes to spending money on a school website, some of the most frequently asked questions are ‘How much will this cost me?” and “What do I get for my money?’.

These questions, we are certain have often been prefaced with an internal question amongst the staff of: ‘Can we do this ourselves?

The fact is that navigating the available options can often be a minefield, as well as potentially time-consuming; especially if you are already tasked with multiple priorities and roles within the school. That’s why we’ve put together this handy resource designed to provide you with a balanced approach towards choosing how and who should provide your school website.

First things first….

Your school needs to have a school website - this is something the Department for Education are very clear on and must be followed.

Every Local-Authority maintained school in England must publish specific information on their school website to comply with The School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 and 2016 and other relevant legislation.

Department for education

 

There is also specific information that you must have on your website depending on if you are a maintained school or an academy trust

However, who designs, builds and hosts this website is up to you (or potentially your Trust, if you’re part of a Multi-Academy Trust).

So, what are your options?

As a school, you have four main options to choose from. You can:

  1. Design, build and host your website in house - fully coded and hosted on your own platform using your own hosting package by someone within your school.
  2. Use a free third-party website platform builder such as Wix or Weebly who specialise in quick, easy, templated free websites.
  3. Use an open source CMS (Content Management System) such as Wordpress or Drupal. This may or may not be free depending on the options you choose.
  4. Employ a professional website design company (such as e4education) to design, build and host your website - often using a proprietary CMS (Content Management System) which is owned, built and maintained in-house by that company.

How do you choose the best option for your school?

Each option has potential pros and cons which may change depending on your schools requirements and how important different factors are for you. For example, if you have no budget at all for a new website, then option 2 or 3 may be best for you - whereas if you have a budget but no-one technical within school to deal with hosting, design and code-based updates, then option 4 may suit you best.

Option 1 - Design and Build Your Website in House

For this option to work and be cost-effective, you ideally need to have someone in-house who is skilled in graphic design and development. They will either have to hard-code everything in flat HTML and CSS (which means that user would need to update the text and images in the main code files each time you want to add or change anything) or build it onto a Content Management System, to allow others to be able to update it.

If they’re coding onto a CMS, it then depends whether they would be creating their own CMS (which will require back-end development skills and lots of maintenance) or whether they’ll be using a third-party open source option (see option 3).

Doing it all in-house is perfect if you have a dedicated member of staff who has these skills and is available to update and maintain your website regularly. The downsides of this however are that it will require time for them to do this (and possibly cost if they require payment) and your system will be solely reliant on this person for updating and maintenance. If this person leaves however, you may be left with a system that no one else knows how to update - which may render your website useless and put you in a dilemma if you have urgent information which needs communicating to your parents.

Option 2 - Using a Free Third-Party Website Platform Builder

There are many free third-party website providers on the Internet - you only need to type ‘free website’ into a search engine and you will be inundated with suggestions. Wix and Weebly are two of the key players in this arena.

 This option is ideal for those schools who have absolutely no money whatsoever to spend on a website as these platforms give you the option to create a templated website and choose which features show on your homepage. The amount of customisation available may be limited, depending on your plan, and you may need to pay extra to upgrade to a package which allows you additional templates or a custom domain name (the ‘name’ of your website - e.g www.e4education.co.uk

Whilst this option doesn't necessarily require any technical knowledge, you will need to select someone within your school to be responsible for choosing the template, adding the content, training other users and troubleshooting issues (as some packages may not include a Support element - or it may not be an instant resolution). You will also need to be aware that there may be restrictions on bandwidth and space for uploading files and you may not be able to include bespoke personalisation elements, in the same way as if you (or a company) were building the website from scratch.

Finally, using a third-party website platform builder will likely not be tailored to the education sector, which means that that some features or functionality may not be relevant to your school. Due to the wider nature of companies using similar templates, you may also come across themes or add-ons which are not necessarily appropriate for association with a school environment. If MIS integration is crucial to your requirements, you may also need to invest in bespoke development (if your supplier allows integration with your provider) to get the two systems to be compatible.

Option 3 - Use an Open-Source CMS

Open Source content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal are distributed as editable software, allowing developers to create, edit and distribute their work without additional permissions.

The use of an Open Source platform gives your school the ability to modify the source code and make the fundamental changes that you require without restrictions. Especially in the instance of WordPress, there are many themes and plug-ins which you can use that have been specifically created for that system by developers across the world. This may appeal, as you do not have to go through a third-party to have functionality designed and built for you and with a wide range of editing options within the dashboard, the use of multiple user roles may allow you to spread the workload across your team.

Whilst an Open Source CMS is often an attractive option due to the lower costs and the fact that it is freely available, it can unfortunately often lead to longer-term problems and security issues.

To keep your website correctly maintained, you will need someone in-house who has the necessary skills to keep this software platform updated and protected from intrusion. If this person leaves your school, you need to consider who would then take on the upkeep of your website; this could potentially be costly and/or leave you in a position where you are unable to update all areas of the website without that technical know-how. There are support forums for open source platforms, but the majority of your support, maintenance and troubleshooting would need to be done in house by your IT team or dedicated website administrator.

With regards to functionality, the range of plug-ins and themes can be attractive, however it is important to advise that these are not guaranteed to always be stringently tested which can provide vulnerable entry points for bots and unscrupulous individuals to exploit and attack. Due to the size of an open source platform, and the millions of users on it, bugs and issues are often spotted by the users (which the open source developers will likely try and resolve) but these may not be addressed straight away, or indeed found straight away, leaving your website open to malicious attacks.

Option 4 - Employ a Professional Website Design Company (often using a proprietary CMS)

One of the easiest and most hassle-free options for a new school website is to hire a professional website design company to design, build and host your website for you. This option may be a little more expensive but will usually provide you with an end-to-end service, support package and much much more.

If you opt for a bespoke website, you will have the opportunity to put forward your thoughts and ideas on the design direction as well as discuss the functionality you require. The company’s team of expert designers, developers, project-coordinators and content specialists will then be able to work collaboratively with each other, and with you, to create your perfect online presence. You will be able to see the website take shape and have access to support, advice and guidance as you go through the process - meaning that you’re not only paying for a website, you’re also receiving a personalised service and the opportunity to interact with real people who are experts in the creative field.

If you choose to go for a more templated design with a professional company, whilst the design will be more locked down, you are still likely to receive personalised interactions and assistance, which is tailored towards your school’s needs.

In terms of development, many professional companies use their own proprietary CMS system. If they use open-source, it is worth looking at the notes on Option 3 and ensuring that the company have stringent safety measures in place to protect both your website and your data from exploitation. Companies who have created a proprietary CMS, especially those with the educational sector in mind, are likely to have spent years researching the requirements of their customers and will have ensured that the functionality they need is either already built into their platform, or can be easily added through bespoke development. This means that you can be confident in the knowledge that, not only do they know what you’re looking for, they also have experience of your sector and market.

Making Your Decision

Ultimately, the decision for which website provider you go for and how you choose to create your new website will always be down to you and your school. Your opinions regarding security, design, freedom to edit, hosting solutions, usability and price will be very personal and specific to your school, and there may be one option which heavily outweighs the others in terms of which way to go. That’s okay. You need to go for the solution that works best for your school with the budget you have been allocated and with the priorities that matter most to your staff and students.

Our main advice, to any customer, from any provider and regardless of the options you are considering is:

Ask Around. Be thorough. Consider everything. Do your research. It’s better to decide slowly and pick correctly, than to decide quickly and have to buy twice.”

If you have any questions on anything we’ve covered above or would like a quote for a new website, please don’t hesitate to contact our team today on 03453 191 039 or hello@e4education.co.uk

Katie Sixsmith

Katie joined e4education in November 2015 as a Project Co-ordinator in our Production Team. She was promoted to Production Supervisor in 2017 and then moved over to join the Commercial Team as our Marketing and Communications Executive in the summer of 2018. She has a 2.1 BA (Hons) in English Language and Literature from the Open University. 

If you would like to write a guest blog post or have any ideas on resources you would like to see within our e4education Academy, please don't hesitate to get in touch