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.

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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….