Fault in computer code caused 11-plus day crash in Bucks

Bucks Council should have been better prepared to deal with problem that affected thousands of parents, report shows

By Rory Butler , Local Democracy Reporting Service
Thursday, 24th March 2022, 2:15 pm
Updated Thursday, 24th March 2022, 2:16 pm

Faulty coding is to blame for a system failure that prevented thousands of pupils getting their 11-plus results, a report shows – but poor communication within the council also didn’t help.

A report has been published detailing what caused Bucks Council’s website to crash on Secondary Transfer Test results day last year – and what plans were in place to deal with it.

As part of the findings, Bucks Council has outlined its involvement and plans for improvement.

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Bucks Council headquarters at County Hall

Chaos erupted on October 15, 2021, when thousands of parents were unable to get their children’s 11-plus results after the council’s website crashed. The failure also brought down the ‘contact us’ forms on the council’s website.

It was the first time a web-based system had been used by the council. In 2020, results were emailed to parents.

Many angry parents took to social media to vent their frustrations, also reporting problems accessing the council’s contact page to complain.

A long four hours later, the system was back, and the council directed waiting families to its website.

The incident caused a lot of distress for parents and children alike, and “significant reputational damage” to the council.

Many criticised it for failing to prepare for something some said was “predictable” and “avoidable”.

Cabinet member for education and children’s services, Anita Cranmer, said afterwards the council was “extremely sorry”.

Previous blunders

It was the third time in four years something had gone wrong with the 11+ process.

In 2019, two errors were found in the questions being put to thousands of children, making them impossible to answer.

In 2018, a technical blunder saw some pupils allocated more time to answer exam questions than others.

So, what happened this time?

A post-incident review states an anticipated 6,000 parents would attempt to access the new system. And just days before results came out, Bucks Council was told by its supplier this “would not be a problem”, that servers would be scaled up, and that support would be available, just in case.

The council’s Digital Team was also told the website “would be able to cope”.

But after the system went down, an investigation by the supplier turned up faults in the system’s code, “which seemed to be the cause of the issue”. This originated with an IT system supplier outside of the council.

“BC (Bucks Council) could not have known that there was a problem with the [supplier] source code,” the report said.

‘Poor communication’

The report does, however, reveal communication failures within the council during the incident, lack of preparedness for such an event, and delays in handling it.

“There was not strong senior oversight of this high-risk process, including the move to a new technical solution,” the report said.

“There was no project plan setting out the roles and responsibilities of staff across the council, and no cross-council project group which would have been appropriate to evaluate options, resolve issues, mitigate risks and oversee the plan.”

The council’s Communications Team also had not been told it was 11-plus results day, the report shows. There was no communication plan and no contingency in the event of system failure.

“It is recognised that the team need to develop a much stronger approach to crisis communications,” the report said.