One of the things about coming to parenthood relatively late is that I’m also late to experience something that all my contemporaries are already only too aware of: Schools are absolutely terrible when it comes to handling payments made by parents for the various non-free things that their children participate in, such a school trips, school dinners, after-school clubs, etc. Most schools, it seems, still have no alternative to cash or cheque handed over to the teacher by the pupil. In an age of credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, online banking, telephone banking, Google Checkout, etc a reliance on cash and cheques is not so much a throwback to the 20th century as positively Dickensian. And yet that’s still the case in the majority of our educational system.
I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to discover that my daughter’s school does actually have an online payment facility, provided by Worcestershire County Council. At least, I was pleasantly surprised, until I tried to use it.
The URL to the payment facility, along with my daughter’s PIN (that’s “Pupil Identification Number”, in this context) and a list of instructions on how to use the system was provided on a couple of photocopied sheets of paper. Disregarding the fact that a well-written online payment system shouldn’t really need printed instructions, the basic idea of a PIN plus payment details seems reasonable. So, on to the site itself. According to the letter, I can find it at http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/payments4schools – so off we go.
First impressions are that it’s a bit basic. Apart from the Favicon, there’s no Worcestershire branding at all – just the name of, presumably, the operator, Civica, and a rather strange phrase in the logo: “Authority Icon”. OK, it’s a functional site and there’s no real need to jazz it up too much, but a little more attention to visual design wouldn’t go amiss.
So, to make a payment. The instruction sheet tells me to select the child’s school from the drop-down menu, which also happens to be pretty obvious. So I do. The next step, according to the instructions, is to select the item I want to pay for from the next drop-down. But hey – it doesn’t work. There are no options in the second drop-down at all. None. Nada. Zilch. It doesn’t matter what school I select, nothing appears there.
OK, let’s skip that. I enter my daughter’s PIN and name, and then the amount I want to pay. In this case, I want to pay for her next three weeks of dinner money, at £2 per day. So that’s £30 in total. I enter “30” into the box.
Next, there’s a checkbox for Gift Aid. I have no idea why that’s there. I know what Gift Aid is for, and how it works, but I don’t see how it relates to a dinner money payment. Ah, the instruction sheet tells me that I should tick this if the school has asked me to. Well, fair enough, but it wouldn’t hurt to put that on the website as well.
Then there’s a drop-down menu for my address. Except that I don’t have any options there, either. So I enter the details manually.
Finally, there are three buttons at the bottom: “Add to List”, “Cancel” and “Back to Top”. It doesn’t say so, but I assume that the first is what I need to press. Oh yes, it mentions that on the printed instructions as well. So why not make it more intuitive to begin with?
I click it. And get two error messages.
The first error tells me that I haven’t selected anything from the second drop-down, so I haven’t said what the payment is for. Well, no, but that’s because I couldn’t. But, mysteriously, I do now have a set of options. OK, I’ll select it now. But… I can’t. There isn’t an option for dinner money. Why not? The letter from the school implies, but doesn’t explicitly state, that I can pay dinner money that way.
The second error tells me that “30” isn’t a valid amount. Apparently, I have to enter it as “30.00”. Although that’s moot, now, as I can’t make the payment I want to make. It would have been nice to know that before I started.
Ah, a bit of experimentation shows that I can get the list of payment options either by clicking on the “select” button next to the school list, or clicking on what looks like a menu choice on the left, the words “School Account”. That’s not exactly intuitive, and it shouldn’t be necessary – simply selecting the school should fire off the onSelect() trigger which populates the next drop-down list. This is just lazy, or incompetent, programming.
Anyway, I do have another payment to make – a pantomime visit – so I select that. Fill in the correct amount, add to list, and there it is at the bottom of the page. So, what next?
The “Pay” button is the obvious choice here, and, fortunately, it works. The rest of the payment process isn’t too bad, although it’s still poorly laid out visually. And when I got to the “3D Secure” page, it timed out. I’m no great lover of 3DS anyway, but it can work OK when cleverly integrated. Here, it isn’t. However, I manage to persuade it to load, and complete the payment. I wonder how many people would have given up at this point, though.
OK, so it does work, eventually. And it’s easier to use once I’d worked out how to use it. But, as an example of web design, both visual and functional, it’s very poor. As a web author, I’d be embarrassed to inflict that on paying customers. But, presumably, Worcestershire County Council paid someone to create that system. I’d be interested to know how much they spent. Because if it was any more than a fiver, they’ve been ripped off.
Having done a little more investigation into this software, and swapped notes with other people who have had similar bad experiences with it, I’ve also discovered that it has a horrendous security weakness. If you know how to do it (and no, I’m not going to give instructions here), it’s possible to obtain the names and addresses of other people using the same system to make their payments. Fortunately, it doesn’t leak credit card numbers, but even a name and address is bad enough. Consider how valuable that information might be to potential (or actual) stalkers, or aggressive ex-partners, etc.
For that reason, I refuse to use the software. And I have told my daughter’s school why I refuse to use it. I’ve gone back to the old-fashioned method of sending a cheque or cash. I would strongly recommend that everyone else avoids using it as well, if at all possible.