When considering schooling options, a school’s website is probably the first point of contact a prospective parent will have with a potential school. As a result, the school website could make or break the overall image and reputation of your school, directly affecting your admission rate.
So if school websites are so important… why do so many of them look like they were designed by the pupils themselves?
Let’s take a look at some of the shortcomings many school websites are suffering from, and what they should be doing to get the most out of their school’s website. I’m focusing on primary schools’ websites in particular, as this is possibly the first point of contact parents will have with a school.
Many primary school websites can fall foul of the same basic website design mistakes:
- Childish fonts and imagery: It’s the parents you need to sell to, not the pupils themselves. Whilst a starchy, corporate website will feel cold and unwelcoming, you do need to be taken seriously, so remember this when you’re selecting your font design; above all else, it needs to be legible.Cartoon illustrations can have their place on your website, but they shouldn’t detract from your messaging. The key objective should be to communicate your main goals and values.
- Too much colour: It makes sense that primary schools want to promote themselves as a vibrant, colourful, and inspiring place to learn. But you’ll need to keep users on your site long enough to pique their interest, and if they’re going to get a headache just looking at your website, your visitors are likely to end their session and go elsewhere! Use colour to highlight calls to actions or main menus, but keep it to a handful of complementary colours, perhaps based on the school logo or school uniform.
I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the entrance foyer in most primary schools will be an Aladdin’s cave of sugar paper displays, paper mache, and corrugated cardboard, designed to welcome visitors and showcase some of the pupils’ best work and creativity, as well as pointing people in the direction of the school office.
The same approach should be taken with the homepage of a website; it should be both welcoming and informative. Factual information about the school should be interspersed with enticing highlights about the school’s approach and ethos, with clear navigational cues to help people find what they need.
The homepage is also a great opportunity to showcase the school’s personality or USP – what makes your school stand out from the competition? Is there a charity or particular cause that you work closely with? Just like with any organisation, if your ‘customers’ feel a personal connection with your brand, they’ll be more likely to return in the future.
From a technical design perspective, navigation is a huge factor for any company website, including schools and educational facilities.
As a rule, most schools will have three main user groups: existing parents, prospective parents, and potential new staff. Therefore, content on the site should be structured in such a way that these three primary groups can quickly find the information they’re looking for:
Many schools now use ParentMail, or a similar application to communicate, but if a parent or guardian accidentally deletes an email, they should be able to access the information digitally elsewhere. Implementing a ‘parent portal’ is a highly effective solution; the portal should be clearly accessible on your homepage and should house all important parental information, such as:
- Holiday timetables
- Uniform and homework policies
- Internet safety
- Staffing update
- Seasonal events, e.g. school plays or discos
By creating a ‘go-to hub’ for parents, you’ll also encourage engagement, opening up the gates of communication and therefore, learning more about your audience.
From a psychological perspective, a neat, well-structured website will reflect well on the organisational structure and professionalism of your school or educational facility.
Job vacancy applicants
Positioning your careers section in your top menu bar will ensure you don’t miss out on valuable staff members wanting to join your team.
Having unclear menu options, for example, coloured text against a similar background, a fancy but somewhat illegible font, or too many options that go below the fold, can seriously disrupt the user’s experience of your site.
The content on many school sites is thin to non-existent. No one would expect the main body of the website to be updated on a daily basis, but contact information, term dates, newsletters, upcomings school events and parent evenings etc should all be readily available and listed under the appropriate headings.
Ensure that your values, messages, and tone of voice are consistent throughout your website. This should also be the case with your website design; the mobile version of your site should navigate in a similar fashion to your desktop version, and display the same colour scheme and style of copy.
It’s certainly not a new concept for business websites, but few schools appear to have a blog. It would be great to see more pupils blogging on their school’s website. Let’s face it – most of today’s children are going to need to be super IT literate, so this is a great way to bring learning to life, and what better way to showcase your students’ literary talents!
It’s also crucial that the copy on a school website is pitch-perfect when it comes to grammar and spelling, given that the use of correct grammar is included in Year 6 tests. In one example I found, I wasn’t sure if the apostrophe-d spelling of ‘SAT’s’ was put there to be intentionally ironic?
SEO best practice
General technical SEO practices seem to be missing from many schools’ sites. Ensuring that a (meta) content plan has been undertaken and implemented, as well as having engaging and well-optimised content across the site, can mean the difference between appearing in Google’s search results and not.
Similarly, many schools’ sites I spotted during my research were not responsive to screen size, making them very difficult to use on a mobile device. This is not only an inconvenience for the user, but will also have a direct impact on the website’s Google rankings, as mobile-first and user experience (UX) are both key indexing factors.
Many schools and local education authorities (LEAs) subscribe to a secure learning platform which offers games and programmes to support the curriculum. Whilst this, in itself, is a highly valuable tool, a link from the school’s website to one of these platforms won’t mean anything to a prospective parent unless properly explained. Highlight the benefits, give some examples – anything to show how the school is embracing technology.
The topic of social media in schools is often a discussion dominated by cyberbullying and a risk to mental health. However, when used correctly, social media can also have a positive impact within school environments. Just like commercial organisations, schools need to open up communications with their target audience and interact with them across a number of platforms to benefit from maximum engagement. Staff updates, activities timetables, and photos of projects or artwork will keep pupils’ parents in the loop about what their children are getting up to on a daily basis. Personally, I’d welcome a Facebook update reminding me about inset days or non-uniform day, too.
Social media can also provide a valuable marketing tool, giving external parents a glimpse into the level of education and enrichment their child could experience should they become a student.
From a recruitment perspective, coming across as a fun, friendly, and involved workspace will encourage the best candidates.
Whilst pupils are certainly a key stakeholder, a school’s website needs to appeal to an adult audience – namely parents, prospective parents, and potential new staff. A school website should be an active hub of information and two-way communication. Parents are far more likely to be engaged with the school and their child’s education and welfare if the website is easy to use and fit for purpose, which could in turn result in better Ofsted reports, league tables, and a continuing virtuous circle.