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Hang ups

The worst thing about this job is having to talk to teachers. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against them per se - I'd be happy for my daughter to marry one etc - nor do I mind meeting the odd one now and again. And I have met some very odd ones.

But, over chipped mugs of coffee in staff rooms throughout the UK, I've also had the opportunity to chew the proverbial with the profession's finest. If the conversation is strictly eyeball to eyeball, all is sweetness and light. The difficulties only arise when I have to rely on the phone. Honestly, it's easier to conduct a telephone interview with the Pope than with most teachers. Try it and see.

The first problem is that school phones are almost permanently engaged. If you hear the friendly purr of the ringing tone anytime between the crack of dawn and 10am, the chances are that you have either dialled the wrong number or it's the school holidays. Just occasionally, probably the result of some glitch in the BT network, someone does answer during term time. Unfortunately, this person is likely to be the school secretary.

Of course, some of this unique breed are the salt of the earth, truly deserving of Heart of Gold from Esther etc. But I usually get through to the others. Like over-protective mums, they are grimly determined that their teachers will have no contact with the outside world. They will assure you that it is impossible to manoeuvre your quarry within bellowing distance of a hand set.

Sometimes, if you are prepared to grovel sufficiently, they condescend to take a message, but even as you spell out the last word, all too often you can hear the paper being crumpled and the ominous ping as it hits the trash can. On rare occasions your message is delivered - to an over-worked, over-tired, over-conscientious teacher who feels obliged to phone you back. This means she has to get on the blower in what teachers still innocently describe as their "free time". You are squeezed in between the hurried yoghurt and the third Silk Cut.

In complete contrast, there are a dozen or so teachers with whom I communicate almost daily - sometimes even two or three times a day - with no inconvenience to myself, and, I hope, the minimum hassle to them. We use e-mail. It's brilliant. It's cheap. And it's easy. Try it and see. You can contact whoever you like, whenever you like, 24 hours a day, and be virtually certain of a reply.

One LEA adviser in Wales would certainly endorse this advice. Out of the office all day - as every adviser should be - she used to live in dread of the calls awaiting her on her answer machine. It wasn't that she didn't want to respond but, like me, she had to contend with the engaged tone, secretaries-from-hell and the distant whistles. She felt lucky if she managed to contact a third of the teachers who phoned her.

Then, at a stroke, the authority gave all its schools an e-mail link and staff quickly discovered it was far more effective. She can now reply to 20 e-mail queries before setting off on her day's travels. It gives her the extra time which she can devote to the teachers who really do need to talk to her face to face.

Unfortunately only a fifth of the schools are currently on-line and so far too few teachers can take advantage of this marvellous means of communication. "It's a crying shame, Arnie, no two ways about it," said the Pope in a recent telephone interview.

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