Against time;The sweeney;School Management;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
My difficulty with the Accounts Commission report, "Time for Teaching", on school administration was finding time to read it. Time appeared at the end of January and I tunnelled my way towards the report at the end of February. It was tightly packed in cellophane, and even opening it took time.

"You have to prioritise," the pundits might say. This epigrammatic view of how things should be done is frequently articulated by those who have never had to manage establishments or people. It is based upon the misguided notion of a hypothetical headteacher who has limitless scope to create his own agenda. "I think perhaps I'll have a look at some differentiation now," he muses and goes off to monitor and evaluate in splendid tranquillity. The reality is somewhat different.

"Delegation" is another fine concept which is revealed at time management courses as though it had just been invented. The consumer culture has encouraged the public to demand the attention of the managing director, the boss, and in schools, the headteacher. Parents and others may feel short-changed when they are referred to an assistant head or to guidance staff, even when the latter are much better equipped to deal with the problem than the headteacher.

The time spent on catering, cleaning, ground maintenance, property issues and transport is difficult to delegate, because people bring their concerns to the head, and council officers liaise directly with the head. The competence of the ancillary services has a direct bearing on the effectiveness of school managers. Contracts for these are assigned by others and the headteacher picks up the debris. But best value will change all that - the buses will run on time, shelves will be dusted, grass will be cut.

There is no doubt that advances in information technology have had an all-pervasive impact on our lives and have facilitated many administrative processes. Registration, timetabling, selection of courses - all have been accelerated by the arrival of the computer. Yet I am puzzled by the teething problems encountered whenever education moves in this direction.

In the days of the technical and vocational education initiative, you were made to feel less than human if you couldn't use Wordwise, a word-processing program for the BBC computer. But you needed a PhD in systems analysis to be able to type a capital letter.

Education appears to have an unerring capacity to complicate matters. In personal life, if I need to know the balance in my bank account, I refer to the computer entombed in the wall on the high street. If I want to travel to Bogot , I go into Lunn Poly and emerge 10 minutes later with a ticket. In education, queries regarding IT frequently elicit complex responses featuring concepts such as "server", "Phoenix" and "site licence", which leave most mortals mystified. IT can undoubtedly streamline school administration, but only if it works.

"Time for Teaching" highlights the value of support staff in relieving teachers of administrative burdens. In Holy Rood, support staff have become indispensable. We would be struggling now without Norah at the buses, Frances at the late desk and the supercharged office staff fielding difficult callers.

Every headteacher wants to concentrate on the essentials of learning and teaching and carefor pupils and staff. We'd like tobe efficient, but we never havethe time.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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