"Talking shop"

Former headteacher Gerald Haigh gets to the heart of the issues that concern you

Q I've been head of a large primary school for two terms and I've felt able to cope with most of the problems the job throws up. But now I face what some colleagues tell me is the ultimate challenge. The long-serving school secretary is leaving - at quite short notice - for a better paid job. The office is a mystery to me. I leaned on the secretary for all the routine admin, and now I have to recruit a replacement. Any suggestions?

A First, don't panic! There will be lots of applications, many from people who have no idea what the job is like. You'll need to spend time finding the one who really can cope with the phone ringing, dinner money still to do, an angry parent at the door and a child with a bleeding knee. They will need good secretarial and IT skills - but above all you want someone who likes people, especially children, and keeps cheerful and courteous under pressure.

If it takes a long time and you're without a secretary for a while, so be it. If you make your need known, you'll be surprised at how much goodwill and practical help you'll find - from neighbouring schools, classroom helpers, parents, the local authority. You may, for example, be able to pay an administrator from a neighbouring school to come for an hour at the end of each day to keep the money straight and do some letters. (Lots of other stuff, frankly, can wait.) While you're about it, sit down with your governors to discuss whether it's time to re-think the whole admin set-up. Maybe it's time to spend more money and, for a large primary, you may really need more than one person, one for admin and one (probably part-time) for reception and telephone. Just don't rush - you're the person who'll have to live with a bad decision. One more thing. With your new secretary, set up transparent systems that other people, including yourself, can understand if the need arises. Then you won't be quite so lost when it all happens again.

Q Every year about this time I get a succession of head colds. This puts me in a dilemma. Do I keep going to school, and risk infecting everyone else, or do I take time off and risk causing disruption because the head can't find a supply teacher?

A Teaching's not one of those jobs where your work can wait till you come back. Your 30 children will be there even if you aren't. That's why, in my experience, few teachers take time off with a head cold. Maybe there's a risk of infecting others - but they probably face a greater risk of infection from the children anyway. I suppose what tips the balance for me is that it is usually very difficult to get good supply teachers at short notice. I'd say if you feel able to do your job you should go in. I'd like to suggest to heads, though, that they offer a word of appreciation to those who struggle in. Nobody likes to be taken for granted.

Incidentally, if this always happens round about now, have you thought that you may actually have developed hay fever? It can start quite late in life and I'm sure it accounts for many so-called "summer colds".

Q My question is about playground duty. How am I supposed to do it properly? By the time I get my coat and a cup of coffee and get out to the playground, a full five minutes have gone by, during which a child might have run off or been injured. And what happens if there's a problem in a bit of the site that I can't see? Am I supposed to be able to look round corners?

A The quick answer is that your school should have a written procedure for playground duty. Ask to see it. You may find it needs dusting off and rewriting to bring it up to date. Why don't you offer to lead a working party to do this?

In general, you'll find that the guidelines about supervision in the playground don't expect the impossible. It's recognised that you can't be everywhere all the time.

But you do have to be vigilant - patrol carefully and sensibly, visit the problem spots, watch the patterns of behaviour so you can head off trouble, don't get into deep conversation with individual children or groups (a common distraction) and don't stay in one place for more than a few seconds.

If you're still uneasy about the level of cover, tell senior management. Put it in writing if you feel strongly that you're carrying too much risk.

And by the way, you shouldn't be calling in for a cup of coffee. You need to be out in the playground promptly and that means organising yourself, and your class, so you're not held up at the end of the lesson before break.

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