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Service with a smile under all circumstances

Patrick Sweeney pays tribute to the school office staff

Pupils with sprained ankles, anxious parents, disorientated supply teachers - all of the dramatis personae who feature in the epic happening that is a school day present themselves in the first instance at the school office.

A fundamental reason for this pilgrimage of the afflicted in search of solace is the helpful and accommodating reception offered by the office personnel.

Their patience and good nature knows no bounds, even when the demands from the other side of the sliding glass window are trivial. If only they glowered a bit more at some of their less highly motivated clients, who time their visits to coincide with the start of their least favoured class, they would have an altogether less hectic time. As things stand, the office is a popular resort on the Holy Rood tourist map. No day is complete for some pupils - and, dare I say, the odd member of the teaching staff - without an impromptu visit to the school office.

Holy Rood's office is presided over by the redoubtable June, who defies the theory of relativity by moving faster than the speed of light, as she goes about her daily business. The meticulously well-ordered mayhem of the administrative assistant's office is a source of constant wonder to her teaching colleagues. Enquiries, both telephonic and written, are responded to with amazing promptness, leaving the headteacher and others mesmerised and feeling slightly inadequate in her wake. All of this is achieved both cheerfully and with professionalism, the withering glance reserved only for the time-waster and the malingerer. However, the prospects for supersonic June and her speedy associates in the years ahead might well be encapsulated in the vaguely familiar phrase "Faster Still".

Those who, after long and distinguished service in school offices, have reached the vertiginous heights of admin assistant, have had enormous responsibilities heaped upon them in recent years. Devolved school management has largely meant that administrative functions previously undertaken by local authorities have been passed to schools without the resources to match.

Providing support, for example, to the headteacher in monitoring the substantial devolved budget demands financial skills of a high order and acrobatic resourcefulness at critical moments.

Personnel work is now almost entirely devolved to schools, and the trusty admin assistant finds herself dealing with very large numbers of job applications, chasing up references, setting up interviews and soothing fevered brows of stressed candidates. This is in addition to the already significant workload involved in managing the school office.

In spite of this dedicated service, replicated in schools throughout the country, the status of office staff remains relatively low and the rewards are decidedly meagre. It could be argued that office managers in schools have responsibility for more staff, more functions and larger budgets than many of the subject teaching department heads. As the workload of the latter has grown, the teachers' unions have pointed out that, when people are overloaded, something has to give. However, in the case of the hard-pressed office staff, there seems to be an expectation that they can continue to play Space Invaders with the multiplicity of tasks which hurtle towards them through the educational stratosphere.

It is incumbent upon us, as school managers, to ensure that their dedication is appreciated within schools and recognised by our employers. The remit of the school office manager has become so specialised and so demanding that it should be validated by an appropriate qualification with a commensurate salary. It is analogous to the job of the medical secretary or the legal secretary, which requires an understanding of the organisation concerned, as well as the requisite secretarial skills. Training to match the challenge should be offered, with a Higher National Diploma course in school administration included in the portfolio of some enterprising colleges of further education. Admin assistants in post could receive accreditation of their experience.

A promotion structure which enables progression and advancement should replace the arcane mysteries of current administrative, professional, technical and clerical salary scales and "special" payments. A job in the school office should provide access to a career in school administration for those who have the ability and drive to pursue it.

A quality administrative support service can only be delivered by appropriately trained and rewarded staff. Delegated management has to mean that there is real investment in those who provide this service.

Patrick Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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