The School Front Office- A Human Firewall To Creativity

I’ve been working with primary schools across the UK for around four years as a private sector company- bringing my travelling tv studio roadshow into schools so kids can get the chance to be a TV reporter, film and present their own school bulletin in front of a virtual studio set. It’s unique, great fun, ties in with the digital curriculum, gives children and harassed teachers a day off the hamster wheel and there are tangible learning outcomes. I get paid, everyone’s happy. So far so good.

However in recent months I’ve discovered an unsettling trend which needs to be explored. It’s quite simple. Ask any company trying to engage with a school to get work and they will come up against a formidable adversary. No it’s not the Head (how naive) but  a far more powerful figure- it is the ‘general office’. They come under many titles- receptionist, part-time helper, ‘the switchboard’, Betty (who’s older than the lagging around the school boiler and has seen of five head teachers) but this collective plays an important gatekeeping role which I am increasingly convinced stifles decision-making and creativity at higher levels.

Four years ago I could telephone a school, ask for a teacher and at the next break they would often get back to me. I always appreciated this. Go into any staff room and you will meet a largely female group of teaching staff, assistants and others all gossiping about parents and the children while scoffing seemingly unlimited cakes and boxes of sweets and sipping awful coffee out of a cracked pink mug with their name on. They can download and upload unbelievable  amounts of data with each other  in a short space of time before- with a heavy sigh and dreaming of half term- heading back into the classroom.

Now its different. Very different. Try and get past the front office. Go on. Try. The chances of speaking to a teach are virtually nil. The standard response is ‘can you send an email’ before you have even had a chance to exchange pleasantries. How about the ICT coordinator’s email address? No chance. “Send it to the school address and I’ll pass it on” says Betty.

Except in my experience, and having spoken to countless ICT coordinators and deputy head teachers, they simply don’t. I meet teachers all the time at events and functions and when I explain what I do they tell me they’d love to have it at their school. I tell them I’ve sent three emails because that’s all I can do. They have never been forwarded.  Interestingly the reaction is the same. The front office. “Oh she’s a tough old bird- you’ve got no chance”.

Now multiply that across the country. These human firewalls are, for whatever reason, not allowing the genuine decision makers- with the children’s interest at heart- to even consider what companies like mine can offer schools in the digital age.   The kids are missing out and it is so frustrating.  I believe many are largely ignorant of the internet age and all its possibilities.  Some general office staff I have spoken to do not even know the school’s email address and are even on occasions reluctant to hand over such ‘sensitive’ data as that address once they have found it. Its ludicrous. What scares me is that frequently these digitally weak staff, while being well-meaning, are not forwarding ICT related emails because they don’t understand what it is and if they don’t then how can the kids possibly be able to do it? ‘Delete’ button pressed and the chances of a great day for the kids learning how to make TV is consigned to the trash folder. They are making key education decisions and they have no right to.

This is not true of all schools of course. Some are genuinely interested and you know you are on to a winner when they utter the magic line ‘”oh the kids would love that, here’s the ICT coordinators email address”. And once contact has been made on the other side of this human firewall then future contact can be established by by-passing the front office.

My message is a simple one. When an organisation- large or small- calls offering their services then channel that inquiry to someone who can make a sensible, considered decision based on the educational impact of whatever that company is offering. We are not all hawkers flogging tat. We are professionals trying to make a difference. So give us a chance.


Pimp My Sperm (Using Collage As A Method)

There are many things I have done on a kitchen table fortified by cheap white wine but as this is a family blog I am reluctant (for once) to go into detail. One of the less thrilling practices is helping the offspring do their homework, particularly tasks which involve potentially ‘start the car we’re off to casualty’ instruments of doom such as superglue, scissors, toxic marker pens or anything small or tempting enough to lodge in an orifice. As long as it’s not anything to do with arithmetic, history, cloud formations or wildlife in the Tundra it’s a painless interlude between the second and third glass and has the added benefit of clashing with  The One Show. 

As I recall homework was never particularly thrilling. Along with eating sprouts; lighting farts; blasting hair spray onto an open fire (Wowza-I never did like my eyebrows anyway) and juggling with eggs,  homework was a rite of passage for any child with some modicum of ability and parents who vaguely cared.     

Last night my 11 year old came home and announced that, without as much as a titter, that he had to make a sperm cell collage and did we have any suggestions? I am convinced that for a moment my dear wife looked at me, then at an empty coffee mug and whispered ‘over to you Andrew’ but thankfully she kept her counsel. We both laughed. Well you do don’t you? But the child was serious and would not deviate from the task in hand…even though the latest Celtic- Rangers brawl was unfolding on SKY and I could hear the crunching tackles and racist barbs from the next room.

So we all headed for the ‘drawer’- the one with everything you need yet don’t need- for inspiration. Bingo. Some old ear buds and string. And those funny little comedy eyeballs with moving parts. What fun!

I had to go onto Google to remind myself what an actual sperm looked like. (A little tip- have a very broad mind when you delve deep into Google Images). I actually couldn’t remember if they had eyes……(did you? No, thought not.)

Armed with a couple of images we knocked up the collage in half an hour or so, and we were all quietly satisfied with the end result. Yes we did include eyes…..and here it is in all its glory.

Homework safely stored inside the backpack we retired to muse about this intriguing sexual twist to ‘prep’. Later, with the kids safely dispatched to bed, we decided that at no stage in our education – whether aged 6 or 16 and at all points in-between, would there have been the remotest chance of  such homework being given to us in the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties. As I recall even discussing the sex life of plants brought our science teacher out in a sweat and he had to lean on the blackboard and open windows to recover.  For naive students, even a grainy overhead projector image of a dangling stamen entering the ovary of a flower resulted in hysterics.

So why sperm at 11? Too young? We knew it was on its way… so to speak. Last month the school sent parents a letter warning  them that sex education was on the agenda. Did this happen when I was a lad? No idea to be honest. But it feels OK that both our kids are aware of all the ins and outs of the subject….and it’s led to some remarkably frank discussions about well, y’know…..(blushes). Must go and open a window, it’s getting warm in here….

Just Another Brick In The Wall

The youngest child, when not reading wrestling magazines, drawing iguanas (his current obsession), falling off the trampoline onto his head or bad mouthing his elder brother is occasionally prone to announcements which can be hilarious. Or profound. Or potentially life changing. Last night was such a moment.  He announced that when he was older he wanted to go to ‘University Studios’. Clearly two worlds had collided in his brain- memories of lost summers in Florida with the in-laws had combined with me droning on about universities to anyone who will listen.  

Now think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t University Studios be a great idea? It would certainly get students out of bed in the morning. As far as I’m concerned it’s never too early for a white knuckle vomit inducing rollercoaster ride. And all the better if it killed time between two tedious modules in Lecture Room 8B.

It could add a tantalising twist to exams. Could you build a website while meandering along on the charming if soporific ET Ride? Or perhaps write a dissertation with some help from Homer Simpson on the Springfield family’s attraction.

I think I’ve hit on a winner here. Universal Studios have my full permission to develop this…..for the usual 25%.


This is going to be a very strange evening. Memories of drinking 14 cans of fizzy pop in two and a half hours; Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ and a stolen moment with Emily Tangent behind a Nissen Hut in a Borders backwater fill my head.

I have just dropped off the eldest child (12) at his first disco which doesn’t involve jelly and ice cream. I am filled with all sorts of dark thoughts. What if he’s offered crack cocaine? Or even worse, the buffet only has turkey twizzlers? Can he beat 14 cans? How much Um Bongo can a child take before being rushed to A&E? Will the youthful hormones turn the screaming little oiks into a giddy mix of lord knows what and we’ll be choosing pink or blue and a nice hat in nine months time?

It’s OK though, It’s an official school event. So that’s all right then. Panic over. The teachers will be armed with cattleprods patrolling dark corners and the loos clipping adolescents round the ear if there’s any nonsense. Hang on though. I’ve just seen the two teachers go in. They are young and tanned. I think they may be an item. I fear the worst. Will their minds be on the job? 

And what about the vexed question of where to park.  Not for the first time I wonder how I can fill two and a half hours on a wet evening in Teesdale. Should I stay in the car park and wait? I’d have hated that. And these days what with stalking cases involving middle-aged men on the increase I may be arrested in a well planned Police raid after an anonymous call from inside the Hall. As I drive away in the squad car I see my eldest smiling and waving. Charming.

 But by the time I drive home it’ll be time to come back again. Maybe I’ll hover in a lay-by along the road and watch something on my laptop. That is also a terrible idea. I fear magistrates would want to make an example.

 The children eventually emerge and are high on….well…nothing but natural excitement. It’s a rare opportunity to be free of parents; school routines; homework and brothers and sisters. Dress code would appear from where I am sitting to be a tantalising mix of branded leisure chic meets Hannah Montana. A heady combination of teenage static; aftershave and exotic perfumes fill the air. I should be appalled. I am of course fantastically jealous. 

 In August 1976 I made my public debut on a dancefloor. Not wanting to become a grandmother too early in life mum had fitted the standard anti- female deterrents: tanktop,  elastic tie and bell bottoms which were hanging at what fashionistas would describe as “half-mast”. I was an irresistible hunk of lovin’.  But of course the disco fell along the usual lines- boys at one end throwing soggy Wotsits at each other, the girls at the other pointing at my trousers and giggling. And so the night passed.

Must go….. I can see movement in the bushes. My God it’s the teachers. Where’s my cattleprod?

The Laminated Book of Dreams

I wish I could tell you that the most read book in our house is perhaps a collection of French prose,  or Ulysses, or even Dan Brown. Something intellectual, something stimulating. Something for the four of us to debate long into the night over cheap port and Maltesers. Or even just during the commercial breaks in the X Factor.

Sadly not. It is in fact the Argos catalogue. Thousands of pages offering everything from beds to bedknobs; dog beds to dogs (well you never know)…all available by phone or online. Or even by actually moving and visiting a store.

Catalogues seem to spring to life at this time of the year. The children, previously barred from mentioning the C word until mid November, have now been unshackled and are rapidly assembling Christmas lists with the Argos book of dreams playing a key role in their deliberations.

And I am more than happy to join them. Catalogues have played a key role in British households for decades and ours was no exception. I seem to recall Littlewoods and Grattans as a spotty teenager. Of course back then all that interested me were the toys, occasional fashion pages (“get your Bay City Rollers bell bottoms here!”) and mainly the underwear section….for many adolescents their first furtive glimpse into the complex and frankly intimidating world of female undergarments.

Not a lot has changed. Sadly Argos does not provide such a key educational service but for some reason both myself and wife are still keen on the Next catalogue. I wonder what she’s looking at?

Brace Yourself

click here for more archive images like this on Flickr

Hospitals are bad enough but when you have to visit a dentist in a hospital you know life has reached a new low.

After negotiating a variety of wheezing, coughing and spluttering patients all enjoying a cigarette in the crisp autumn sunshine outside the main entrance we made our way up to the Orthodontic department.

Today I was not the patient. The youngest child needed brand new braces fitted. Top and bottom. He seemed to be very brave. He wasn’t. Tears started welling up as the chirpy consultant tweaked the wires with pliers. And that was that. Ten minutes later I was back out in the waiting room with a sobbing child. Charming.

For me this was 1976 all over again. At the time I had teeth that to put it mildly, ‘protruded’. It was probably going too far to say I could have got an acting role in Watership Down but help was clearly needed.

I wore two braces for two years. Looking back I probably gagged, vomited and slobbered my way through my first day.

Today the journey home was a long long one. The child was not happy. UN type negotiations were needed to salvage the situation. In this case a new DVD did the track. And no it wasn’t Dracula! Ha ha

Four hours have now passed since the fitting. He’s happy and now wondering if the klaxons will go off at airport security when he goes on holiday. Life has returned to normal.  

Cows And Sex And Slappers

Hot to Trot

Hot to Trot

If you are of a sensitive disposition and not used to reading a racy blog laced with love and seduction then please look away now.

It all started at the weekend when Vole Junior looked out of the car window. “”Hey Dad, one cow’s on top of another. What’s it doing?”

I looked to see two cows ‘at it’ (ish) but there were no udders in sight which could mean only one thing… cow sex.

I decided 0843 was too early in the morning, and perhaps five years too early to explain this to a 10-year-old so I applied classic deflection tactics all parents will know well.

“They’re just being friendly… what bar of chocolate do you want at the garage?” 

And that I thought would be that. I had got away with it.

Until last night. At the dinner table. Perhaps it was the chicken breast that did it.

“What’s a slapper?”

I looked down suddenly taking  great interest in the sprouts. “Mrs Vole?”

“Ask your father” she retorted combing it with a withering look which reminded me she knew of girlfriends from the distant past.

Eventually he appeared satisfied that it was someone who had lots of ‘friends’ and wasn’t particularly picky.

Next question…..”what’s a prostitute?”

We referred him to answer we’d given moments earlier….adding “but for money”

The final one put the tin lid on it…..almost literally.

“What’s a condom… it a hat for your willy?”

Child sent to bed.

Parents  turn to drink.