Be very careful with the e-bumf, dear

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Once upon a time when I first became a governor we got a massive deluge of paper before every meeting and yes, we used to complain about the amount and even the weight. Now we hardly ever see a printed document and at first I felt very modern and efficient, having come to the paperless world a bit late. I am beginning to have doubts now, if only because for most people it seems to take up a lot more time one way and another. I could list a lot of worries but I thought I'd sooner just see what you thought were the pros and cons first. And are there any dangers?

I've been waiting for this question, because I too was a late arrival in the paperless era, and though mostly I'm very proud of having coped with it, I have my questions too. We can't hold back the march of time, but I can't say I feel altogether easy about the subject in relation to governors, who do a massive job without reward and who have the right to the means to do it which suits them Most obviously of course one can't yet, by a long way, say that every governor has access to a computer. We must make sure that our schools don't force this form of communication on us in areas where the percentage with computers is low, and also that there is no fuss about sending paper documents on request - without constantly referring to it.

Yes, I have witnessed unintentional unkindnesses - never experienced in my present school at all but I hear that there is the frequent conspicuous apology: "'I'm so sorry, I forgot you weren't on email." So we mustn't exclude anybody or make it embarrassing. Other worries I have are that although it is a big plus to save on postage, it is transferring some of the cost of managing the school to the governor - paper and cartridges but also time spent printing, collating etc. You haven't abolished the paper - you still need to read it in comfort, have it handy to refer to again before you leave home, and of course take it to the meeting. In some schools - secondary mostly - the amount is alarming.

Also you can read without disturbing too many people, whereas the time when everyone wants the computer is a feature of many homes. You can take paper to bed, take it on the train, read it over your lunch, without ruining family harmony. Most of all though I think schools have to be specially careful in this paperless routine to be even more thoughtful about time.

Staff aren't now constrained by the post collection, which is a valuable discipline, and it takes only seconds to email any number of pages to any number of people. It must be a great temptation to dash things off at the last minute (I have received complaints about receipt on meeting day, and most people work). At least a few days to deal with it in your own way is a must. I have even heard of cases where messages about the place or time of the meeting or the road closed have been received on the day in an area where many have to go straight from train to meeting. I am not ignoring the benefits and how it all saves time in other ways.

Fresh information can be added nearer the meeting if absolutely vital, and it's a wonderful way of mounting a quick consultation on an urgent or sudden issue with a chance to bat it to and fro. For substantial working papers I remain more doubtful, and obviously the size of the school, the social mix, the amount of really complex business are all factors.

In the primary school where I am now a governor they seem to manage this, like everything else, just right. Email is used for brief or urgent messages, fairly ephemeral issues and quick consultations, and for advance notice of some more substantial things which later come by post as well.

Agendas, minutes, head's reports and significant policy documents come by post. There is no fuss about a postal alternative on request. So I think my answer to how to use email is the same as that to a child who asked how hedgehogs make love. "Carefully and thoughtfully, dear."

Joan Sallis's column now appears on this page every three weeks: see more of her answers on the TES website. Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see ask_the_expert where answers will appear.

We welcome your queries. Joan strives to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum. We aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals

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