Partnerships for Schools (PfS) is the government's delivery agency responsible for capital investment into schools, covering all secondary schools, primary schools and the new 'free' schools. The organisation was established in 2004 as a non-departmental public body (NDPB).
PfS works closely with the Department for Education and the New Schools Network to help progress free school projects. This free schools programme has been conceived to help committed teachers, charities, parents and education experts open all-ability state-funded schools that are free of local authority control to address real demand within an area.
To support this programme, in February 2011, PfS unveiled a new one-stop online tool to help allow teachers, charities, parents and community groups explore the geographical area where they propose setting up a new school, helping them to understand more about the existing educational landscape.
This complex online service, which leverages Microsoft Bing maps and Silverlight technology, was developed to pull together data from a range of government information sources so that anyone interested in establishing a free school could have access to contextual information about schools in their area of interest, and to arm parents with the information they need to decide on which school they would like their child to attend.
The 'free school kit' makes available, for the first time in one place, a unique set of information, including pupil attainment, the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, Ofsted ratings, and information about surplus places, for every school in England, as well as initial indicative data on possible sites that could house new free schools. Groups wishing to set up a free school are able to hone in on the area they are interested in and view this information overlaid on a map of the local area.
Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, the school building agency responsible for helping groups find appropriate sites for free schools, said: "The free school kit is our way of making our technical and specialist advice available to everyone round the clock. Free schools proposers can now pinpoint a possible location on the map and explore, within a five-mile radius, to compare the performance of other local education providers. This practical tool will help new school groups make a sound business case by comparing where existing schools are under or oversubscribed, and to start looking for possible sites for their new free schools.
"We hope this proves to be an invaluable tool for all parents, not just those wanting to set up a free school. Not only does this chime with the transparency agenda, but the free school kit has been produced at no additional cost to the taxpayer as it was developed and built entirely in house."
The in-house team that developed the service was led by Karl Hoods, head of information systems at Partnerships for Schools. He explained that adopting a cloud computing model offered fundamental advantages for the development and deployment of the free school kit.
"We looked at a traditional hosting environment, but given the uncertainty over public demand for the application, specifying a solution to scale quickly without significant investment in hardware and hosting solutions was deemed to be the best solution for us," Hoods said.