back to article Council IT system goes berserk, packs off kids to the wrong schools

Brit families waiting to find out if their kids have been accepted into their secondary school of choice were bamboozled on Thursday by a computer blunder. Herefordshire Council's systems sent out a wedge of emails to parents offering their children places for the new school year – but the information was wrong. It appears …

  1. lawndart

    says:

    Now we know what the Sorting Hat gets up to when it isn't needed at Hogwarts.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Herefordshire Council told me my daughter had a place at Hogwarts.... gutted.

  2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    ...and has been sent in error whilst testing the ...

    ... Random Number Generator.

  3. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Facepalm

    In a Facebook posting... "Please spread the word!"

    Fail upon fail. The council have already got everybody's email addresses so they can get in contact with them personally.

    1. Richard Jones 1
      Coat

      Re: In a Facebook posting... "Please spread the word!"

      Or given the failure they have had to date perhaps it is best not to trust their random number address machine, oops sorry e-mailer application.

  4. Phil Kingston Silver badge

    That's not a computer error - that's a management error - testing a system like that with live personal data and the ability to actually send out emails to real addresses.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Testing with live data is unlawful in the UK, isn't it?

      1. Chika
        FAIL

        Not exactly sure where the law stands on this, but it's quite likely that testing on live data in a potentially live environment is a bloody stupid thing to do. Even back when I was still programming, we had a specific, isolated environment to test on so that it didn't do anything to the live environment that we'd regret!

        With the race to get everything back to the past (clouds, thin clients and what-not), you'd think that they'd remember something like that, wouldn't you?

        1. bringbackthebiff

          The least they could have done would be to bork the mailer if they weren't testing mail functionality, or update all the email addresses on the system / via the mail server to a test email address / a council address belonging to a tester if they were.

          Testing with live data is not illegal in the UK - would be v challenging to do UAT for large organisations if it was - but a stuff up like this will make it hard for HC IT bods to be allowed to do it in the future.

      2. TheVogon Silver badge

        "Testing with live data is unlawful in the UK, isn't it?"

        Why would that be illegal?

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          1. TheVogon Silver badge

            So reading that blurb, the first link just says that you need to observe the data protection act for real personal data - which is obvious anyway. But doesn't make testing with production data illegal.

            The second link seems to a product advert disguised as an article. It even has a copyright notice stating that it belongs to the company in question...

  5. vmistery

    Yes blame it on IT, more likely it was a user in the schools admissions department making sure the software works without thinking of the consequences. IT departments are not babysitters, people should take some responsibility for their own actions or next year the users will be complaining IT are too restrictive in what they allow! Can't win!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This:

    "the admissions system took it upon itself to "

    "The development team took it upon themselves to incorrectly program and then hit the "go live" button without doing ANY background testing"..

    TFTFY

    I'll wager that this is another out-sourced IT company, like Serco and Co-Socius who are not capabale of doing the job despite costing MILLIONS more than the old in house council IT crew

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: This:

      We had something similar, but the other way around. Some idiot developer left his testing email address override in some the code went live, so every single customer's confirmation went to him instead of the proper recipient. His email account lasted about 10 minutes.

      1. clocKwize
        Facepalm

        Re: This:

        People forget things sometimes, that doesn't make them an idiot, it makes them human. I see this as a failure of the team and processes. Code committed wasn't reviewed before it was pulled in to the main code base and there was no testing of the changes before they went live. And also, you'd expect a bunch of tests to pick up on the fact emails weren't trying to be sent to the right place. You can't place those failures on a single developer.

        1. wikkity

          Re: This:

          Everyone seems to assume that the software was developed by developers following a [flawed] process. Most likely it is an Access database that someone in the office knocked up and has been tweaked and poked to the point where no one really know how it works.

    2. Chika
      Happy

      Re: This:

      I'll wager that this is another out-sourced IT company, like Serco and Co-Socius who are not capabale of doing the job despite costing MILLIONS more than the old in house council IT crew

      Heh! I resemble that remark!

  7. Crisp Silver badge
    Terminator

    I like the way they blame it on a computer error...

    As if the computer suddenly gained a will of it's own and took it upon itself to send the emails with no prompting from a human operator.

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Re: I like the way they blame it on a computer error...

      Shortly after they become self aware, they get bored.

    2. PNGuinn
      Joke

      Re: I like the way they blame it on a computer error...

      Its not an error, its a feature.

      Its what happens when you use microsoft's new w10 Clippy with predictive artificial intelligence.

      Hasn't the update installed you yet?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    look at the delta

    The interesting question aside from the process mess up is what will change in the final assignments as that will presumably show where a human has overridden the algorithm.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I think you're not informed about your school place until towards the end of April. We had a right old shambles with Cornwall's admissions system. We want our little girl to go to a school in Plymouth but you have to apply via your own LEA. The school we'd like her to go is about 100yds from where I work is a very good school with very good before and after school care. Our local village school is none of those! Not that good and hopeless before and after school care, really good when you both work! Anyway went to fill the online form in only to find said school isn't on the list, after much discussion was told they could add it to the list for next year! Very handy! So had to download a form and email it off to them. Then as we had started the online procedure but not finished it, as school wasn't on the list, and you can't delete an application once started. We got a letter from Cornwall Council saying we haven't filled in a school admissions form. *sigh*

  10. wyatt

    A stressful time indeed, but if you know your application offer isn't coming until April you would be suspicious about this one! I'm in the process of applying for Primary schools for my girls. No really good ones nearby, put if I put in for a good one a bit further away there is a good chance I won't get it and be sent to somewhere even further which has lots of unwanted places (for good reason).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I feel your pain. The school we want to send our little girl to (above) is a CofE school so even though we live 25 miles away (but work right next to!) we hope we have a reasonable chance of getting her in as my wife does go to church with my daughter (I'm not religious BTW) and that trumps most other entrance criteria.

      1. wikkity

        RE: as my wife does go to church

        This simply makes my blood boil, the fact that someone attends church improves their chances of getting into a school. The fact that it is a religious school should have no consequence on can go there, if it were funded by a church, fair enough but not when it's tax payers money. I would love to see someone claim relgious dicrimination for failure to get in.

        I still can't understand hpw in this day and age there is any aspect of religion in schools beyond RE lessons that simply teach about what people beleive in. And pesonally, I don't see why that has to be an individual subject.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: RE: as my wife does go to church

          it is a church funded school, and it does take any faith or non-faith kids, quite a mix of nationalities there that's why we like it

          1. wikkity

            Re: it is a church funded school,

            They do not pay the running costs of the school, they might host the odd jumble sale now and agian.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: RE: as my wife does go to church

          "The school we want to send our little girl to (above) is a CofE school"

          The first line of his post has a very subtle and hard to spot clue. I've helpfully highlighted it above.

          1. wikkity

            Re: RE: as my wife does go to church

            Maybe my post was too subtle. The school is funded by tax payers money. Given that why should any preference be be placed on a potential pupil based on their religion. if a church was to fund the school out of their own pocket I'd be happy to concede that. But I pay the same tax the other parents pay so why does my child not have the exact same chance of getting into a school 100m away as my neighbours kid and instead I have to take her to a school in a different town?

            Yes, I do know they can do this, there is even a specific clause in the discrimination act. My subtle(?) point which was "why", this is want makes my blood boil. Religion has no place in education other than a subject, but to explicitly bend over backwards to allow discrimination based on it has no place in todays world.

  11. djstardust Silver badge

    I stopped reading

    after Council and IT

    1. Chika
      Coat

      Re: I stopped reading

      Council IT can be quite fascinating. A place where they concentrate on keeping the bottom line as low as possible so that they have enough money to pay ongoing costs to prop up any mistakes they make while they doing that can be fascinating (and sometimes hilarious!)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I stopped reading

        "where they concentrate on keeping the bottom line as low as possible "

        Where they are FORCED to keep the bottom line as low as possible -TFTFY.

        Say a council decides to replace their 20 year-old school admissions system, not because it doesn't work but because the cabinet office (NOT the EU) enforces "maximum supplier spends" (so even though it's been upgraded every year, fine-tuned until it perfectly matches their processes, and does exactly what they want it to, they've got to go out and replace it because they have reached some arbitrary level set by the civil service).

        Now the value of this system does not exceed the EU tendering thresholds but it does exceed the cabinet office requirements for "competitive quotation". A CQ is effectively a tender except rather than have to publish an ITT you can choose the (minimum of) three suppliers to ask to quote on the replacement. The bids are usually assessed. from a cost perspective, over a three year period.

        Let's assume our hypothetical council has got quotes from A, who were the original suppliers, where the cost of implementation is nothing, and the licensing/running costs are £40,000 per annum. Company B quotes an implementation cost of £40,000 and annual licensing costs of £30,000. Company C quotes £20,000 implementation and £10,000 support costs. So the cost over three years is £120,000 for A, £130,000 for B and £50,000 for C. The bids are assessed by the IT department, the admissions department and procurement. The system has been specified using Moscow criteria but, because the cabinet office say you can't slant those criteria to favour a specific product (and you can be sued by an unsuccessful bidder if they can prove you did) those criteria are fairly broad and all three systems meet the Must criteria.

        Admissions want system A but could live with B if they had to; C has been used by other councils and is widely reported to be a steaming pile of poo. IT would prefer B, because it integrates better with their existing systems, but as they already running A sticking with it is no big deal, again C has been shown to cause network problems, server crashes and is generally very service desk intensive so they definitely don't want it. However Procurement look at the bottom line and with 60% of the vote their recommendation to the PTB who sign-off such purchases is that they purchase system C.

        This is duly purchased and goes on to cause no end of problems for involved except procurement, who are the only ones in the council to get an above inflation pay rise because of "all the money they've saved the council".

        It's admissions and IT who get it in the neck because the system doesn't work properly and when it actually stays up long enough for them to input the data it sends out emails when pupils are moved into their potential schools instead of sending them when that placement has been approved.

        Oh and who introduced these wonderful limits and procurement rules? That will be a succession of Tory governments, in particular the Major regime, to ensure that all their cronies got a slice of the public pie.

        Of course that is the same government that brought in competitive admissions. Prior to that your choice was you paid for your child's education at a private school, or your child went to the nearest state school. If the nearest state school was under-performing then you had a vested interest in improving it so you supported its fund-raising activities, gave donations for extra equipment or books not on the statutory list, and/or stood for election to the board of governors (who had the power to fire the head!). Note I said stood for election; because of parents having a vested interest in the running of the school, because their children went there and they had the power to affect real change, elections had to be held for governors because there were more applicants than places. These days it's appeals because there are not enough school governors, and many of the powers that governors used to have were transferred to Ofsted (another Major creation) so the role is largely powerless to effect meaningful change in any case.

        1. Chika

          Re: I stopped reading

          Where they are FORCED to keep the bottom line as low as possible

          And that's why they concentrate. I do agree with you as I've worked in a couple of different councils over the years, both of which suffered from this problem, both of which were severely shackled in their actions by people who were more interested in bottom line savings than efficiency. That's why I get annoyed by the term "best value". It often has nothing to do with actual cost savings, just bottom line cutting.

          And I'm speaking as somebody that has worked under more than one dominant party. They all see Councils as something they can sting for a bit of extra cash when things are getting tight. That's why Councils end up getting it in the neck every time they cut services or raise Council Tax.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    For years...

    ....most of you who have bothered to vote at all have voted for the party which will give you the lowest tax rate. You have bought into the myth that Labour caused the deficit and that "austerity" public spending cuts will fix it (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ramesh-patel/growth-cameron-austerity_b_2007552.html) .

    These "austerity cuts" have reduced local government to a shambles, staffed only by people who are either too inexperienced to work elsewhere, too incompetent to work elsewhere, or have been there for years and are too close to their pension to want to work elsewhere and are just waiting for early retirement/voluntary redundancy. This latter group has absolutely no motivation because they are being managed by 18 year old "management trainees" and there is no money available to fix the myriad problems with their systems, let alone take a strategic approach to improving things; most of the time they are just fire-fighting 10 year old servers and networks, because there is no money for new kit, thanks to Osborne, Cameron & Clegg. Pay in the public sector is now down to less than two-thirds of the private sector equivalent jobs and people still wonder why no-one competent wants to work in local government. Even if jobs are outsourced, staff are TUPE'd on their current rate of pay, and then their conditions are gradually eroded because "you're in the private sector now". The outsourcers have to deliver the same service as in-house, but with less money than the council used (otherwise how would the council be saving money?) and they have to show a profit for their shareholders, so the service becomes worse than it was under the council.

    As for test environments, don't make me laugh! Funded from where? Little used test servers have been used to replace failing live ones until there is no dev environment left.

    If the government continues to impose these massive cuts on the public sector you are going to see service failures, and not just in IT, that make this look completely insignificant. No-one died here. They will if things don't change.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: For years...

      ermmmm my council Cornwall were a shambles before "cuts" nothing to do with Austerity. Best get back to your union meeting.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: For years...

      There is no "austerity" in an environment where money-printing is the call of the day and the stockmarket explodes harder than a pornstar doing his signoff. And wars are going on.

      But what party would you recommend? No. NOT "Labour", that cancer is done.

  13. AndrewDu

    "no one wants their youngsters ending up in a failing comprehensive or somewhere miles and miles away from home"

    Probably better not to leave education to the State, then.

    1. Graham Marsden

      @AndrewDU

      Probably better not to leave education to schools Acadamies being run for profit by the mates of those run the State...

      FTFY

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Graham Marsden

        Acadamies being run for profit...

        If profit appalls you, then you'll approve of independent schools, then? Most are run as non-profit making organisations, and reduce the load on the state education system by something of the order of 500,000 UK resident pupils.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Graham Marsden

          yep they get their cash direct so they don't have to go through incompetence that is the LEA. Classic example and this is going back to the late 80's. I left school in 87 about 2 years after I left they spent money laying carpet through out the school! This was in the days when schools were moaning there wasn't any money for books etc. Correct as you've spent it all on fecking carpet!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: @Graham Marsden

            Once again someone sounding off blaming the local authority without the foggiest fecking idea what they are talking about. NATIONAL government decides what proportion of the LEAs budget is spent on buildings, what on books, what on teachers' salaries etc, based on the LEAs submission which in turn is based on previous budgets.

            The LEA cannot shift money from one part of the budget to another and. like most other public sector budgets, whatever is unused at the end of one FY is taken out of the budget for the next year.

            So, for example, a local authority is undertaking a series of building repairs and improvement works at a number of schools in the current FY. They have also budgeted for a similar programme in the next FY. It is now January and the budgets have been approved and are set in stone. At one of the schools work on an outbuilding scheduled for conversion to an arts block has revealed substantial amounts of asbestos in the walls. Whilst the cost of removing this will be covered by the County Council's contingency fund, the building work will now not start until the new FY, which means that none of it can be paid for out of the existing budget. This means that the LEA now has (for example) £60,000 that it can't spend on its intended works. If that money is not spent it will be reclaimed into central government and the LEA will be £60,000 short on its budget for next year's works. So rather than happening they elect to spend it on (e.g.) carpet for a number of schools in the area (especially if one or more schools have requested the provision of carpet); this ensures they preserve their budget for the next FY.

            Rather than blaming the local authority, why not target your ire at the Westminster bureaucrats who have made large areas of L(E)A budgeting and procurement an absolute minefield, and waste far more of taxpayers' money than any council ever did with its spending policies. If a private company can carry over budget from one FY to the next, why is it so unreasonable for an LA to be able to do it? Why should an LA not be able to decide that money not needed in its buildings fund can be spent on books instead? Frameworks designed originally to prevent corruption have, instead, lead to restrictions on local authorities which make no sense and waste taxpayers money.

            However if you try to explain this most people either glaze over or stick their fingers in their ears whilst going "la-la-la". After all, it's much easier just to blame the local council, isn't it?

  14. Ben1892

    Good default setttings ...

    ....from the commentards; "I bet it's a result of outsourcing", "developer's fault", "change management's fault", etc. come up with something a bit more original please ! You don't re-develop an admissions system each year for the next pupil cohort, chances are it's been stable and unchanged for some time with no development "go-live" needed in recent months or years.

    My money is on a human mistake in the non-outsourced admissions team accidentally pressing the "send the results now" button without realising what the effect was.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Good default setttings ...

      See my other AC post above; councils are forced by cabinet office to re-procure systems (and any other service) when they have reached an arbitrary "maximum spend". If the lowest bidder is not the existing supplier then the system will change.

    2. billat29

      Re: Good default setttings ...

      Afraid not. Ministers (and others) like to play. So, the rules change, sometimes subtly, sometimes not and by the time they are finalised, there isn't enough time to do a quality job in development, test and, especially, deployment before the next admissions round starts.

      And it's more complicated than you might think - especially in and around London where applications often span boroughs / counties and each LA has to coordinate with its neighbours.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: Good default setttings ...

        Code in Prolog to handle administrative delirium in time and on budget!

  15. Walter Bishop Silver badge
    Linux

    Blame the computer ..

    "In other words, the admissions system took it upon itself to offer kids school places before officials had made up their minds."

    NO, blame the people who activated the admissions system without properly testing it. Could you find out anymore technical details, by any change was this "admissions system" an msOffice MailMerge macro?

  16. All names Taken
    Terminator

    see OMG he's back posted elsewhere

    a well motivated moderator (is there such an entity eniwhere in the universe?) might feel obliged to intervene no?

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