Gateshead College: Web site problems

Friday, September 18, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Accessibility, Public Sector, Ranting, Standards, Technology

Concluding my three-part piece looking at the “wonders” of Gateshead College, I decided to have a look at their website to see whether the problems I encountered with their enrolment procedures were symptomatic of further problems, or whether this was just a one-off.

At first glance, what I saw was not exactly promising:

The connection has timed out. The server at is taking too long to respond (flickr)

Hmm. I initially thought this meant that the site was down — not that unlikely around enrolment time, if it was struggling to cope with demand — but further investigation revealed that it was a subdomain issue. Basically, the majority of websites have an address in the www.sitename.suffix format. And most of the people responsible for these sites are sufficiently au fait with the web to know that anyone who has left the subdomain off the front of the site probably wants the main site and to direct you accordingly. Some even prefer their sites without the www prefix.

Not Gateshead College, it would appear. With the www prefix, you get the site. Without, you don’t. This is such a straightforward simple fix that it didn’t even occur to me that an organisation of this size would not have fixed it.

Now Gateshead College, like many such sites of this size, is powered by a Content Management System (CMS). In their case it’s one called “Curo”. I was able to establish this without reference to the press release simply by looking at the site metadata which tells us that the entire content of Gateshead College’s website is copyright Curo.

<meta name="KEYWORDS" content="Gateshead College" />
<meta name="DC.creator" content="Curo" />
<meta name="DC.publisher" content="Curo" />
<meta name="DC.format" content="text/html" />
<meta name="DC.rights.copyright" content="Copyright Curo" />
HTML from Gateshead College Home Page

Now I’m not being negative about the Curo CMS here — I really have no idea of its capabilities — but integral to using a website is understanding the CMS you are using and setting it up correctly. I find it difficult to believe that having Curo marked as the copyright holder for all of the content — or that “Gateshead College” is the only appropriate keyword (what about “education” or “training” or suchlike?) is setting it up properly.

The site uses .asp — which is fine with me, I’m neutral about which server side technology you use — and doesn’t uses CSS for presentation, which is a good start. They also have a “commitment to accessibility”:

We are committed to web site accessibility for all our users and we have a programme of continual improvement in place to help us meet our objective of 100 percent accessibility for all users.GATESHEAD COLLEGE | Accessibility

It is perhaps a shame therefore that their site search function contains the text “enter search term” which would have to be manually deleted by anyone who doesn’t support javascript; that while they make a point of saying that the site can be navigated using the TAB key, they haven’t thought to add any :active or :focus styling to make the current cursor position a little more visible, and that their form controls (e.g. the ‘contact method’ radio options on the contact form — which also require javascript to work) are not always associated with a label, placing further steps in the path of users with disabilities.

There’s also a few glaringly great huge accessibility holes on the front page: they have nice big images which say things like “full time course guide: available now click to download” which obviously link off to somewhere, and have a blank alt text. Not missing you note, blank. As if someone has either deliberately decided to put in blank text — presumably either because they don’t want blind people signing up to courses or because they think the information available to a screen reader: “link: trackban dot a s p question mark id equals six hundred and fifty eight ampersand amp semicolon (etc)” is an appropriate equivalent to “full time course guide: available now, click to download”.

Objective of 100 percent accessibility for users? Well, they are a bollocking long way from that.

I’m not going to go into a full accessibility report for them here — hell, if they want that, they can pay for it — but suffice to say, there are problems.

One of which is that if you offer accessibility features, you really ought to check whether or not they work. They offer the option to have a text only version, which, so far as I can tell, does indeed produce a text-only version. However, this is actually bad for accessibility, as it ghettoises the experience, and not only that, if you’re offered a text-only version with the ability to change your settings (for example, text size and colour), you’d expect to be able to, well, change the text size and colour settings.

Only it doesn’t work. Not in Firefox, not in Safari, not in Internet Explorer, not in Opera. And this is precisely why offering a separate version of your site to disabled users provides a ghetto experience: because nobody bothers to check if it works.

In other surprises, Gateshead College don’t have a robots.txt file (it’s not mandatory, but most people do use it to advise how, and which, search engines should spider their site). There are also a pile of other errors: apart from the home page, there’s an awful lot of the site doesn’t validate (again, it’s not mandatory, but it’s a sign of good practice), and the fact that it doesn’t validate for simple errors — such as the lack of closing tags properly when you have selected an XHTML DOCTYPE — is far from impressive.

There is stuff it does well: the colour scheme is nice, the navigation works pretty well, navigation items are structured as lists (although there are frequently validation problems here too, as the lists aren’t always opened or closed properly). But in general, it’s exactly the same as the enrolment procedure.

On the surface, it looks quite nice, but a lack of attention to detail has left it with some rather serious flaws, one of the most entertaining of which comes if you actually try to look at their equality action plans. If you visit that page, and attempt to download any of the documents (using the “these policies can be downloaded” link which one would presume is for that purpose), you get “this page has been deleted”.

These policies can be downloaded? I rather think not. Instead you get a page which looks half-finished, showing as it does various holding tags like [STANDARDTOPJS], [SITEHEADER] and [RELATEDBODY] which one would presume aren’t supposed to be publicly seen.

Gateshead College: 'the unfinished page' (flickr)

And then you’ve got the error handling. Robust is not the word. For example, you can find the “About us” page at If you input an ID incorrectly however — e.g. 1007, you instead get a SQL Server error reported to the user. Wow.

Microsoft OLE DB Provider for SQL Server error ’80040e10′
Procedure ‘Get_Page’ expects parameter ‘@id’, which was not supplied.
/curo/classes/cmsRecordset.asp, line 15Gateshead College

For security reasons this sort of error should not be reported to the screen: at least not remotely. It’s hardly in your interests to tell potential hackers what sort of database you are using. And their 404 error handling is similarly non-existent. On many sites, if you type in an incorrect page, there is some rudimentary error handling which says “sorry, you’ve tried to access a page which doesn’t exist — try our search facility instead” or some such, as exemplified by Newcastle College. Again, it’s not like it’s rocket science. And I would have expected Gateshead College to at least look to see what other nearby colleges are doing to ensure that their site is of at least equivalent quality.

But it would appear that this level of attention to detail — whether for enrolment or for having a professional web presence — is something that they haven’t been doing. Perhaps it’s time for them to pull out that proverbial finger and get it sorted?

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4 Comments to Gateshead College: Web site problems

  1. Gary Miller says:

    September 18th, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Hmmm. Jack, are you up for offering them our professional services and do a full accessibility audit for them?

    Mind you, we’d probably have to start at the real basics: W3C stands for; WAI stands for; WCAG 2.0 stands for; accessibility means; legal requirements are; moral requirements are; practical suggestions would be; etc…etc…etc…

  2. JackP says:

    September 19th, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Already did approach them unofficially: but was told that they are ‘happy’ with the services they have on the web. From which I can only infer either that they don’t care about the problems with their website, or they are deliberately ignorant of them, or that they are in a huff with me :-)

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