How to survive the sales season

14th January 2011 at 00:00

I bet there's one thing prospective headteachers aren't taught at the National College for School Leadership. How to deal with persistent salespeople. And the new year is the time they strike with a vengeance...

OK, everybody has to earn a crust, but equipment manufacturers know that schools are a ready market, with guaranteed funding. They're also reliable institutions money wise, so if you sell a school something you're unlikely not to be paid. Hence schools receiving at least one call from a photocopier salesman every week, another from somebody offering to update the computers because if you bought them last month they're probably obsolete, and yet another from a new supply teacher agency, because they do very well at the moment and have become a growth industry. That's aside from the companies trying to sell you insurance, toilet fresheners, playground equipment, fire safety checks and a million other things you don't really need.

At my school, most calls of this kind go through secretary Sandra's office, and she's a dab hand at dealing with them. Refuse to give your name and the nature of your business, and you'll never be passed through to me. You'll be told I've just gone out, or only just come in. Or that I'm dealing with a difficult parent. The persistent ones keep ringing back, and if they do happen to catch me, I tell them I've just gone out.

Come to think of it, perhaps a course on safeguarding headteachers against high pressure salespeople is exactly what the National College should be including on its courses, because avoiding the pitfalls is a hell of a steep learning curve and I've certainly made a few blunders in my time.

Like the day, early in my headship, when a gentleman called at my office and said he could cut my fuel bill by 20 per cent. Funding was difficult in those days, and fuel bills a worry. All he needed to do, he said, was fit his firm's special device to the boiler. My premises officer was interested, and we paid up. The salesman returned a month later, jiggled with a little meter, and said yes, everything was fine and we'd soon see a reduction in our bills. We did. It was about 2 per cent. Far worse than that was a local authority memo saying that schools should be wary of salesmen with fuel-saving devices, because they could wreck the boiler...

Computers were another stumbling block. When we planned our original computer suite, I wondered how we were going to afford it, until a small installation company phoned and said that because they only dealt with schools, they were cheaper. We duly paid what seemed a reasonable sum, but within six months the computers began to fail and one of the monitors exploded. Worse, the company had gone bankrupt, and every engineer we called in pursed his lips, sighed, and said, "Who sold you this lot"...

These days, I'm a wise old bird and nobody's likely to sell me down the river without a paddle. Nevertheless, with the slickness of e-advertising the pressure is really on, and when I fire up my computer in the mornings there will be at least 30 emails trying to flog me something. If I had to award a prize of the month for seizing the moment, it would have to go to the company which, at the height of the swine flu scare, was selling portable pupil isolation suites. Only six grand, and guaranteed to keep affected pupils safe until their parents could collect them.

Now of course, if they did an isolation suite for annoying Ofsted inspectors ...

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email:

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