Woodlands Junior School in Kent has the most visited school website in the country. Stephen Manning finds out why
Riding high in the UK's most popular education websites chart is one lone school. Woodlands Web, the site of Woodlands Junior School in Tonbridge, Kent, boasts a peak of 70,000 unique users per day, with a weekday average of 30,000 to 40,000.
It is by far the most visited school website in the country. According to the website popularity monitor, Hitwise UK, for the week ending February 3 it was the third most popular site for an education institution, behind the University of Aberdeen and the Open University, but ahead of learndirect.
It ranks at 21 in a more general chart of top education sites, just behind the Department for Education and Skills and our own TES sites.
The website is run by Mandy Barrow, a former Year 4 teacher at the school.
She left in 2004 to train teachers in ICT for Kent council, but continues to spend at least an hour a day working, unpaid, on the site. She also oversees Kent's National Grid for Learning website, which is geared more towards teachers than the pupil-centric Woodlands site.
"When I joined the school in 1998, I expected it to have an online presence, but that wasn't the case," says Mandy. "So I volunteered to create it, and taught myself web design from scratch."
In its infancy, Woodlands Web was very basic, but since its launch in October 1999 it has accumulated an enormous amount of content, from maths and literacy revision zones to online games, as well as a range of children's classwork.
Much of the content is aimed at overseas visitors, and there are some 1,500 pages on British life and culture glimpsed "through the eyes of our students".
"In 2001 I took a year out in Thailand, where I realised that a lot of people overseas want to know about Britain and British culture," says Mandy.
The site's A to Z of British culture runs from afternoon tea (a small meal, not a drink) to the Queen's Foot Guards. Mandy, a great fan of Winnie the Pooh, has even provided a photographic journey down the River Thames; the adventurous bear is photographed pushing his boat from the source at Thamesmead until he finds water to sail on, stopping off at landmarks along the way.
Parents, meanwhile, can consult the "school office" section, which is updated by staff members and covers everything from what colour PE shorts your child will need (blue), to a detailed weekly school dinners menu.
"A website is the best way of promoting your school," says Mandy. "Parents look at our site and decide they must get their child into the school, sometimes without even checking what results it gets." Parents needn't worry: the school was among Ofsted's 80 most successful in the UK in 200304. But it is interesting to note that parents can be drawn to a school by the impression it gives of a lively and creative environment, rather than by academic merit.
A survey last year by Education Data Services found that around one in nine schools in England and Wales appears to have no website or one that cannot be immediately accessed. In 2003, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency published Making Websites Work, which acknowledged that the typical school might not have the budget, time and expertise.
So for Woodlands, having a dedicated outsider such as Mandy Barrow has been a boon. "She gave us a great head start," says Linda Brenchley, one of the school's ICT co-ordinators. "If we had to begin from scratch now, I don't think we could."
Create your own website
Free web space and the advent of simpler web design software have made the creation of a website far easier than it once was. Woodlands Web, for example, uses Macromedia Dreamweaver.
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency advises that a flavour of the school needs to be imparted within about eight seconds, because that is how long a casual user - for example a parent choosing from lots of different schools - will spend perusing a site. Consequently, if there is too much text, it risks being ignored. A brief summary accompanied by a PDF download is a better option. Similarly, 10 buttons on a homepage is about the upper limit.
For further advice on designing a school website, visit http:becta.org.ukcorporatepublicationsdocumentsmaking_web_sites_work.p df