A human touch helps even the most hard-pressed school present its best image to the outside world, says Gerald Haigh.
Schools are increasingly aware of their front-of-house impact. They have paid attention to their brochures and notepaper and "marketing" has entered the educational vocabulary.
Competition for pupils has a lot to do with this, but there is also a general and genuine desire to put on a friendly face. When this works well, the effects are noticeable and very welcome.
Sometimes, the drive for efficiency goes a little too far. Recently, for example, I phoned a school only to be answered not by a person but by one of thoseelectronic voices that only allows you further access if you press certain keys.
Eventually, after some juggling with numbers and the star key,I telephonically arrived at the office of the person I wanted. And, then - would you believe it - he had his answering machine on. Not only that, but it did not ask me to leave a message. "I am not available to take your call." Click. End of story. On your bike, sunshine, we're busy people here.
Which is all very well, but what happens when an anxious parent phones this school? Someone, perhaps who has had to dash to a payphone during a 15-minute break?
To be fair, most schools do very well. A human being answers, for one thing. You ask for someone, and after a friendly greeting, the secretary puts you on hold. (Mozart sometimes. School choir occasionally. Why never Charlie Parker?). "Sorry, she's teaching." What happens next significantly affects the caller's impression of the school.
At worst, the conversation will end there, because the secretary makes it plain that "she's teaching" is all you are going to get. Usually, though, the secretary will either take the caller's number or advise on the best time to ring again.
More than once I have encountered a school secretary whose anxiety to please has sent her running off to fetch the person I want. (Very guilt-inducing, this. "Really, there's no need . . ." I shout, ludicrously, into the handset as Ihear her feet receding down the corridor.) Visitors, too, are usually better looked after than they used to be in the days when it was difficult to find your way in and you were likely to end up crashing around in the boilerhouse or opening the door to the girls' changing rooms. One London secondary school, I recall, had a door marked Visitors Report Here. It was on the second floor, and you could only find it by asking an adult. The pupils shied away like startled horses if you approached them.
Now, there is usually a waymarked route from the car park, and where there is not, the pupils are noticeably better at helping. Some, including very young ones, are wonderful at looking after visitors - warm, chatty, helpful. In many cases they have clearly discussed or even role-played this either in assembly or in lessons, and they show real pride in having a chance to do it for real. I have occasionally been borne towards a startled-looking head by a fast-moving bodyguard, like Chris Eubank entering the ring.
In secondary schools, visitors more often than not step from the outside world into a reception area. Sometimes there is a table staffed on a rota basis by pupils. Occasionally there is a fully fledged front desk run by the office staff. In one case at least, the reception staff wear corporate dress and have printed name badges ready for expected visitors. Is this a good use of the budget? Only the school itself can decide.
What soon becomes apparent is that the open reception desk works best if the person running it has good telephone contact with the rest of the school, plenty of initiative and good knowledge of how the school works.
More usually, contact is made with the main admin office, through a glass-fronted hatch. Again, the crucial moments come after the first greeting. I wonder whether the school secretary or receptionist knows just how good it makes a visitor feel when she comes smilingly out of the office, bypassing the dreaded slidingwindow?
Once seated in the reception area, a visitor sometimes has to wait a long time. Schools have many priorities, after all, and the needs of children are unpredictable. Unexpected staff absence can cause problems too. Sensible visitors understand all of this.
In fact, if there is a good wall display, some school brochures and some folders of newspaper cuttings, the waiting time can be interesting and productive.
The time passes more easily, too, if members of staff stop to say hello and to make sure peoplein the waiting area are being looked after.
Much of the paraphernalia of reception and telephone answering is, of course, seen as being borrowed from the business world. In my experience, firms are no better at all this than schools are.
What really matters, it seems to me, is warmth and a genuine desire at all levels to show the organisation off at its best. If this is there, then a few simple procedures will see to the rest.
Procedure for dealing with telephone callers * Answer promptly. A typical local authority target revealed in the recent league tables is to answer within 15 seconds. Modern systems have the technology to monitor this.
* Monitor calls to extensions from the switchboard until they are answered; no caller should be "abandoned" on a phone ringing in an empty office.
* If the person being called is unavailable, the switchboard might use any combination of the following:
Take the caller's details, check the nature of the question, and suggest alternatives. Many callers routinely ask for the head when someone else is more appropriate.
Ask if someone can ring the caller back. Take details.
Suggest a better time to call.
If appropriate, suggest sending a quick fax which will help the caller with the later discussion.
If the caller is going to ring back, take the earliest opportunity to tell the person who is going to be called.
* Any member of staff receiving a call intended for someone else should be as helpful and positive as possible.
Procedure for dealing with visitors * If they are expected, display their names in reception (Visitors Today: 09.30 Fred Jenkins of Leather'em Window Services; 10.30 The Right Honourable Gillian Shephard MP) or prepare well-presented name badges for them, or do both.
* Once a visitor has appeared at the sliding window, someone should come out of the office to continue the conversation rather than continuing to talk through the hatch from a crouching position.
* If the visitor is asked to wait,say why, and offer refreshment. If the wait is prolonged, provide updates which show he or she has not been forgotten.
* If the wait goes on longer than a few minutes, try to find someone else who can at least talk sensibly round the visitor's query.
* Encourage general "visitor awareness" among staff and pupils. ("Hello. Can I help? Is someone looking after you?) Draft code of practice for school visitors (Especially OFSTED inspectors, local authority advisers, councillors, Members of Parliament, university trainers and researchers)
* Really try hard to make an appointment first. This makes it more likely that you will be able to see the right person.
* Explain on the phone, or write, or fax, an outline of why you want to visit.
* Arrive on time. Too early can be nearly as bad as too late. But leave time to park (never assuming there will be room on the site) and to be directed to "the other building".
* Announce clearly and pleasantly your name, the name of the person you have come to see, and the time of your appointment.
* Make every allowance for the pressures of school life, especially in a very small school where there may be only three or four adults. If you feel comfortable in schools, counter the offer of coffee by offering to make it yourself.
* Even if it is not obviously relevant to your visit, ask if you can be given a quick tour of the school. Most heads are pleased to be asked.
* If a teacher gives up break or lunchtime to talk to you, then apologise and say thank you. If the teacher has evidently not had time to get coffee, suggest that he or she does so before you start your talk.
* Do not overstay your welcome. If the business is finished, leave. The school has other priorities.
* On leaving, if you found the atmosphere pleasant and the children friendly, then say so. The head will be pleased, as will the rest of the staff when she tells them what you said.