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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YMC-Nile

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?