The image of the school secretary as a part-timer, taking the job because of the long holidays, doing the odd piece of typing and leaving school at 3.30pm needs to be firmly buried. At the Labour Party conference in September Tony Blair announced funding for a further 20,000 classroom assistants,who will take some of the strain on teachers and boost the adult to pupil ratio in schools. Although welcome, the extra help will still not address the workload issues that unions raised earlier in the year.
"The fact is," said one headteacher, "that most teachers heave a sigh of relief once they shut the classroom door - it's outside the classroom that the problems start."
It is the administrative workload that most concerns the unions. Policy statements, codes of practice, individual learning plans - all are part of the seemingly endless stream of paperwork which has to be ploughed through in addition to day-to-day lesson preparation and marking.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter university, argues that many headteachers are buried under the bureaucracy that comes with the job. "These are administrative roles," he told a conference of school secretaries and administrative managers in the Midlands earlier this year. "Why not let the admin people do it?" One head who has taken that message on board is Giles Drew at St Edward's CE School in Romford, Essex. "The unions were arguing that no teacher should be doing administrative tasks like photocopying, so I decided that at this school they wouldn't."
The decision which was initially unpopular with the staff, but has now become an accepted part of the school's routine. "There was a lot of concern about this, but one member of staff told me that it had saved her two and a half hours a week," says Mr Drew.
Another duty no longer carried out by teachers is registration. The school uses Cosmex, a swipe-card registration system which has simplified procedures, giving the school more accurate information on attendance and more teaching time. "It's cut out both registrations and about 20 minutes a day additional teaching time has been created," says Mr Drew.
The school employs a chartered accountant to oversee finances, and Elizabeth Spinks, Mr Drew's personal assistant and office manager, has a team of 20 support staff under her wing. "Over the past 10 years we've doubled out support staff," she says, "Which is only right. "The teachers should be teaching children - that's what they're trained to do. We're here to take the pressure off them."
At The Plume School in Maldon, Essex, Yvonne Hunter is in her first term as office manager, after previous administrative roles outside the education system. The contrast is marked. "Very, very busy" is how she describes her new post, "Absolutely manic most of the time." Sarah Dignasse, the headteacher, reckons she has "an excellent admin team that get work turned around on the same day", an accolade that many heads would like to be able to give. Yvonne Hunter believes that her team give good support to the staff but that there is room for more delegation. "We could be more pro-active," she says.
At King Edward VI School in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the head's secretary, Susan Pestridge, says that partnerships between heads and administrative staff take time to develop.
"It's a two way relationship of trust and confidence." But once the relationship is established, a good personal assistant can ease the pressure and divert some of the work. "You tend to use your initiative to stop some things going to the head," she says.
"You have to work in a school to understand how hectic it can be - nobody on the support staff here is underemployed," says Susan Pestridge.
Simon Blacksell, conference organiser for SFE, which runs training courses for school administrators, argues that school secretaries are vital players and headteachers need to consider how best to use their expertise and time. Giles Drew says: "I rely on Elizabeth absolutely. She is the hub of the school. "
* Cosmex was developed by Blackpool Sixth Form College and is marketed by its trading company, Blixman. Tel 01253 394911.