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.

1000 Facebook Friends….And Still Lonely

This week I decided to reboot and revert to my default setting. I reclaimed my life.

Why? Well it’s easy to blame the explosion of social media in all its myriad forms. So I will.

I knew the part of my life controlled by electricity and wi-fi had taken a depressing turn for the worse when I found myself on facebook  leafing through the fourth birthday photos of a child posted by one of my ‘friends’. Nothing unusual in that. Lots of happy smiling faces, a big birthday cake;  harassed parents clockwatching; toddlers being flung off a trampoline;  flaccid bouncy castle; alcoholic party entertainer …you know the drill. It was when I clicked on image 187 that I heard a voice.

It was shouting “sad loser”.

And it was right. I had never met any of the children, or the parents, or the entertainer for that matter. In fact I had no recollection of ever accepting the mother of the child  as a friend in the first place.    

How strange. But it’s not is it?  Most if not all of you reading this will be on facebook and like me you’ll have ‘friends’ who are actually anything but.

Do you know how much time we spend looking through other people’s crappy lives? Add up the five minutes here, the 10 minutes there and it will stagger you. And I mean really stagger you. Think about it. Is that what social media is about? Really?

The reaction to this road to Damascus revelation was swift and brutal. With a precision any surgeon would be proud of I took an electronic scalpel to my friends list and reduced it from 200+ to a hard-core of 35. Let’s face it, most ‘friends ‘ are people you never actually want to meet, never have met and would happily cross a street to avoid. And as for inviting them round to the house, not on your nelly.

I found this an amazingly liberating experience. You should try it. My morning Facebook session is now contained within a couple of minutes rather than the 45 minutes it used to absorb.

And yet, I know some people are upset. They know they have been discarded. They wonder if it’s something they have done. Believe me, it’s not personal. It’s social media. It’s all make believe. It’s a second life. It’s all in the ether. It’s largely inconsequential. It means everything and yet nothing at the same time.

I have a very good friend who I used to work with who spends an extraordinary amount of time on facebook. (Incidentally he is among my inner circle of 35). He has over 1200 friends who he considers to be exactly that. He lives in a remote community and has a happy and active life. And yet last week he posted how deadlines were piling up and how there were never enough hours in the day. It struck me that if he spent less time on social media then he might hit those deadlines.

But it is of course horses for courses. Facebook friends allow you to eavesdrop on their lives and enter their worlds.  But ask yourself …do you have all these friends because you are incredibly popular (and let’s face it not particularly fussy) or are their fascinating lives replacing the voids in your own? Ultimately the whole business is entirely voluntary. 

For the moment I, for the first time in an age, have better things to do. Like running a business, maintaining the vegetable patch, trying to read more books, moaning, playing cricket and being a good and available husband and father. In other words being me.

Your real friends are probably not on facebook. You (gasp) actually speak to them most days rather than hide behind an electronic curtain. Think about it.

Don’t look on me as a pedant. I went to University last year and gained an MA in multimedia journalism with the vast majority of my studies specialising in social media. I can’t do without it. I am obsessed with Twitter…in a good way. It has replaced Ceefax as the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I check before nodding off. However those who I follow are motley and transient, and as I get bored easily,  I have clean outs regularly. No-one dies.

I guess we are searching for a balance. For me the balance went way too far the wrong way and now I have righted it. I now have control of my life again. And if I have to jettison a few ‘friends’ along the way so be it.

Well, must go. It’s my youngest son’s  birthday this summer and I need to find a children’s entertainer. Hang on, I saw a great one on Facebook last week….now where was it…ah….bugger….

Getting Wii-ly Fit

Last week I awoke, at 0510, to some rhythmic but ominous thumping noises coming from downstairs. I was instantly transported back to the Eighties and my old student digs in Edinburgh’s New Town where similar sounds could often be heard (for only a couple of minutes mind you ha ha) leaking through the floorboards from my handsome flatmate’s love parlour as yet another nurse succumbed to his droll Fife patter (translation: the usual shite). “Lucky bugger” I’d mutter, and roll over as the sun came up.

Back to reality, and the present. Where was my wife at this critical moment? I wanted her to go downstairs and chase the intruders (I’ve insured my face so obviously couldn’t go…..)  But she was nowhere to be seen.  So, protected by my fluffy M&S dressing gown and armed with a fully loaded Blackberry and the mini Dyson (which does look like a Flash Gordon ray gun) I set off to make a citizen’s arrest.

As I got nearer the living room the banging got louder and I could hear grunts. Perhaps my wife was snogging him to death. There are worse ways to go.

But of course there was no intruder. She was alone and she was playing with a vibrating piece of technology (pervs, you can log off now, it’s not what you think) which had been dusted down and plugged in after six months hibernation behind the DVD rack.

The Nintendo Wii Fit, so simple and yet so brilliant. With the dark chilly foggy mornings on the rise, and winter not only just around the corner but coming down the drive,  the summertime 0500 walk with a friend and the dogs has been replaced by a 45 minute workout on the Wii. Like so many aspects of fitness you get out what you put in, and boy oh boy she was going for it this morning. The iPod was on, she was ‘glowing’ (women don’t sweat apparently) as the on screen avatar tackled a challenging road circuit in bright sunshine with lots of cheery other runners joining in the fun.  The clock counted down and finally it was over. The machine worked out the timings, assessed her run against previous efforts and declared she was a ‘roaring fire’ or something equally daft lost in translation. She was delighted. (However I remember in the early days she returned to the bed chamber with a heavy heart having been called a ‘wilting disappointment’ or similar.  “Bloody machine’s broken” she pronounced. And that was it…..back in the box for three months.)

And so  my message to the circuit boards in the Wii Fit is a straightforward one. If you want to stay active, remain ‘front of house’ and not behind the DVD rack, then behave yourself and call my wife nice names. And if I ever do decide to stand on you, do not emit smoke and  remark ‘no coach parties porky’. Or else you’re up in the loft with the burger maker, bread machine,  fondue and other duff technology acquired on a whim. You have been warned.

Caught In The Web

Click here to see more of Vicky Brock's fine work on Flickr

There have been several mind-boggling technological leaps of faith in my 27 years as a journalist. When I started as a spotty cub reporter for a weekly newspaper group in 1982 (Jimmy Connors won Wimbledon; ET was the movie to see and Duran Duran dominated the charts) it was a much simpler world. No computers; no mobile phones; no coffee shops on every street corner; smoking in offices; liquid lunches and a printing process called hot metal (literally). In fact the most prized possession (apart from a Rubik’s cube) was a typewriter ribbon. They were like gold-dust.

Gradually, something terrifying called ‘new technology’ started to creep in. Journalists, like other office workers, were usually bunged a few grand to put up with this upstart. Happy days.

First we had PCs and mobile phones and then the internet came along. The digital dawn had broken. You either went with the flow on an exciting voyage of discovery or were left way way behind in grey cardie and slippers muttering about the good old days.

I love the internet. It opens up all sorts of possibilities good and bad. A fantastic resource on the one hand and a melting pot of false truths and distortions on the other. You take you pick….

Up until a few days I had no idea how a web page was built. Wasn’t hugely bothered. After all, like Blackadder, I am quite happy to wear cotton but have absolutely no idea how its made.

So in my latest guise as MA student at Teesside University I am required to craft a web page or two. And so I was let loose on delightfully named software called Dream Weaver. But sadly I didn’t manage to weave any dreams…or sensible content for that matter. It was a nightmare and I have renewed respect for those who can create magic from a blank electronic canvas.

I’d like to think I’m sensible and relatively IT friendly but after two hours of toil it looked as though pre school infants and four chimpanzees had been let loose on a keyboard. My debut page had the look of one of those pioneering web pages from 1990. Basic, clunky and oh so plain.  

The next session is looming. I can feel a short illness coming on. Perhaps swine flu.

However I am a determined old sod so failure is not option. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

A Virtual Fresher

clike on here for more of Lochaven's fine work on Flickr

In what I suspect will be a recurring theme as the Vole adjust to life on a University campus after a 24 year hiatus I have more shock news to impart.

In the old days fifteen rather pleasant trees in Sweden had your name on them as they were ultimately destined to become study aids, books, journals and other necessary printed items for your period in an academic institution.

My how times have changed. Yesterday we were given what I assumed would be the first of many handbooks and guides. A room at Vole Towers had been allocated for storage. It was destined to be a very physical reminder of the task ahead. Read two shelves and get a degree.

Then our ‘module leader’ said those would be the last pieces of paper we’d see over the next year.  Everything would be done online. Amazing.

E-Learning is what it’s all about so we’ve had sessions on everything from virtual studying an virtual resources to virtual assessments and virtual pastoral care.  And even in the library you can now ‘e-snitch’ on noisy students!  Another heavy IT session looms this afternoon.

Do University’s now rely on e-protests; e-karaoke and e-hangovers? Thankfully no,  judging by the states I saw this morning. It cheered me up no end.

I’m off for an E-Guinness. That’s extra cold of course.