Don't get the red-tape blues;Briefing;School Management

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Follow John Caunt's advice - take control of your time and climb that ghastly paper mountain once and for all

Everyone hates red tape. The teaching unions have declared war on it, particularly the amount piled on to staff by headteachers. The Department for Education and Employment set up a working party to try to limit bureaucratic demands and has just announced its conclusions.

Education is not alone in its concern about the proliferation of paperwork. A recent international Reuters survey reported that information overload - the inability to assimilate and process the excess of information we receive in our jobs - is strangling business and causing stress. Two thirds of the managers surveyed claimed information overload led to tension with colleagues and loss of job satisfaction, while more than a third admitted it caused ill health.

There is a tendency within schools and colleges to lay the blame at the door of those external organisations that make unreasonable demands. The need to streamline and simplify the output of government bodies, exam boards and education authorities is borne out by the majority of recommendations from the DFEE working party.

While the implementation of such recommendations would bring benefits, there are aspects of individual behaviour and school or college organisation that can make the problem worse than it needs to be.

Fear is at the root of many contributory work habits. We plough through documents of only passing significance frightened that an important nugget may be buried within. We over-use the photocopier as a form of insurance. Copying a document to all and sundry absolves the sender of responsibility for any failure in communication. We hang on to information of dubious value, concerned that it may be of use in the future. We postpone dealing with the difficult document, afraid of not doing it justice in the time available. When we return to it, we have to waste more time refreshing the memory.

If you are going to win the paper war, you will need to be brutal with the stuff, and trust both your memory and the people around you.

The surefire way to create for yourself that most stressful of objects, the teetering in-tray, is to browse through your post dealing with the easy bits first, and putting difficult items, or those you are undecided about, back into the tray to be tackled later. Alternatively, be alert to what is important, set yourself a time for dealing with incoming paper, and adopt one of four actions with every document that crosses your desk: Pass it on, act on it, store it or bin it.

Cast aside any guilt about ditching items unread. Remember the 80:20 rule: 80 per cent of the benefits come from 20 per cent of the activities. Being perfectly informed can cost you huge amounts of additional time.

Forget the old time management myth that no piece of paper should be handled more than once - more complex items may need repeated handling - but use a bring-forward file or project folder for those documents to which you need to return, rather than your in-tray or a desktop pile. If you haven't previously mastered skimming and scanning techniques, then now is the time to start.

An open door means interruptions. Consider whether you can set a specific closed-door time each day when you will have the opportunity to tackle some of the heavy concentration work.

When your door is open, ban from your repertoire the words: "I haven't time to look at it now, but leave it with me." Such a reply deals you a double blow. Not only have you interrupted whatever else you were doing to listen to the colleague, but you have also acquired responsibility for the next action on that specific issue. Frequently this may mean that you carry out the task yourself when, with a little timely guidance, your colleague was both prepared and capable. You need to ask yourself whether your management style is such that junior colleagues feel they must always discuss issues with you before they act, or write to you when a word would do.

Some improvements can only be achieved if tackled co-operatively. Groups can reduce their workload by members taking it in turn to read significant documents and provide summaries for the others.

In larger schools and colleges it is not uncommon to find the same information stored in many places. As up to 85 per cent of information stored in files is never referred to again, this can be a serious waste of effort. Collective clarity about what is important and who will save it, combined with individual determination not to save the unnecessary, can help.

Circulation of information does not amount to knowledge. Better that staff are aware of important documents and where to find them, than that they are peppered with copies of everything.

A communication policy committed to simplicity, accessibility and clarity can help to bring about a healthy pre-occupation with more effective information handling. This may require criticism of existing structures and ways of working.

You have to invest time in changing your way of working. Many people use this as an excuse for inertia, but the commitment to change is not necessarily as onerous as sometimes presented. You can identify problem areas pretty well in an hour's honest reflection.

You don't have two days to overhaul your personal files, but 15 minutes a day will do the trick.

Getting to grips with e-mail and the Internet is simpler than learning to construct complex spreadsheets and databases.

Used effectively, ICT will help in the management of information, but unchecked it is the worst offender. If you don't believe me, think back to the early Eighties when experts were confidently predicting paperless offices.


With every piece of paper learn to either pass it on, act on it, store it or throw it away.

* Don't put items to one side to be dealt with later and don't use your in-tray as storage space.

* Encourage others to develop effective information strategies - they will make your life easier.

* Allocate specific times to activities such as open-door and background reading so that they don't overlap with other important tasks.

* Don't invite colleagues to leave issues with you when you're short of time to give immediate advice.

* Place information where people can find it for themselves.

* Use technology to reduce, not increase, your information burden.

* Reduce any overhaul of your work habits and organisation into bite-sized chunks, so that you can achieve change without excessive disruption.

* Don't seek information perfection. Remember that 80 per cent of the benefits come from 20 per cent of the activities.

Briefing School management 25

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