I wish I had time to do my job properly

9th June 2000 at 01:00
A school secretary's working day is not a peaceful one, Eleanor Caldwell finds as she talks to Christine Noble in between calls, meetings, paperwork and split-site visits

It's 8.30am and the telephone in Christine Noble's office at Madras College in St Andrews, Fife, rings every three or four minutes. As teachers report in absent, Christine telephones to an assistant headteacher who is dealing with staff cover and begins to prepare the day's staff out-of-school register.

With a teaching staff of more than 130, this process accounts for a lot of time first thing in the morning. It is complicated by the fact that Madras has two sites: the main 1833 South Street building takes S4-S6 and S1-S3 pupils go to the Kilrymont Road site one and a half miles away.

Christine telephones a principal teacher at Kilrymont Road to inform him that a member of his department has returned from absence but is teaching that morning at South Street.

The next problem facing her is a report from the office staff at Kilrymont Road that their computer printer is out of action. Rapid repair or replacement is essential for the day's work, she explains, and sets about a series of telephone calls.

From her half-glazed office, Christine greets a series of visitors on their way past to headteacher Lindsay Matheson's office, which is next door.

She is charged with the task of finding a place for the large silver Duncan McIlwright Scottish Trophy for cross-country running which has been won again by the school. As a second trophy arrives later, Christine discusses arrangements for the press photo call with the head later in the day and puts a cheque for presentation into the office safe. Her short briefing session with the head moves on to varied discussions and details of the planned school trip to Barcelona. A quick call to "up the road" resolves some issues.

As Christine returns to staff absence paperwork, she answers a call from Kilrymont Road about codes for absence which, she explains, is an increasingly complicated process.

Christine moves continuously between her own and the main administration office next door, which is situated off the main quadrangle of the historic building. She discusses and organises board of studies meeting minutes, supplies of photocopier toner, S3 reports and the next school newsletter. Due to a fault on the main copier, the office staff is having to copy 300 reports on a much smaller machine, "which is a bit of a nightmare," says Christine.

Back in her own office, she begins to sort out the day's post. Probably due to its name, Madras gets a lot of inappropriate post aimed at further education colleges. While a member of her staff goes to collect post from Fife council's area office in St Andrews, Christine opens the first of the "diplomatic bags" which arrive twice daily from Kilrymont Road.

Today the post includes a request from a former pupil for names and addresses of the class of '78. "We've had a rush of requests for pupil reunions recently," Christine says. "It can be quite difficult keeping up to date with all the addresses over the years."

As a senior pupil goes into the head's office, Christine comments that she has very little daily contact with pupils now that she no longer works in the main office. "I could hardly name any of the pupils now - apart from the ones receiving awards or the ones in real trouble."

The janitor is her next visitor: he wants to hang a painting in Mr Matheson's office. In his absence, it is decided that both hammer and painting should be left with Christine. On his return, the head looks forward to finding a place for the artwork, which he says gleefully is "worth a wee bit".

Before her lunch break, Christine drives to Kilrymont Road to ake sure that temporary office staffing is organised for the remainder of the term. "Unfortunately, I don't have time to do this every day," she explains.

The split site adds an extra task to Christine's duties, since she must process staff expenses claims for their daily travel between the sites.

At Kilrymont Road, there is good news about the printer, there are no problems with staffing and Christine announces that she has chosen the new paint colour for the ladies' toilets.

Back at South Street after lunch, Christine meets with the office accounts assistant, Morag Wilson, and a local accountant to review financial procedures, which she describes as "a mammoth task in such a big school". As the group discuss weaknesses and possible improvements to their system, Christine agrees that a regular monthly meeting would be efficient.

After the meeting, Christine's earlier point about contact with pupils is borne out, as she makes arrangements for two pupils to meet Mr Matheson to complete exclusion procedures.

Throughout the afternoon, the telephone continues to ring and Christine fields a wide range of enquiries. She says she has no difficulties with her teaching colleagues but laughs: "Teachers are not the best administrators in the world though!" She points to one of the postcard-sized signs on her wall: "Your lack of preparation is not my emergency". Teachers can forget that the office staff have holidays too, she says, and sometimes expect typing that is handed in on the last day of term to be produced on the first day back at school.

The end of the school day is the only time when Christine can get down to working with Mr Matheson on the day's post, she says. As she heads towards his office, however, most of St Andrews is hit by a power cut. Lack of light is no real problem. Christine's first concern is for the school's computer administration system, which has gone through teething problems since its recent installation. However, she is confident the files have been backed up already today.

Of her work, Christine says: "Like lots of others, I just wish I had more time to really do my job properly." She admits to taking work home:

"Otherwise I wouldn't get it all done."

Mr Matheson enthusiastically declares his administration assistant to be "outstanding at what she does here."


8.30am Arrive at school and start fielding telephone calls from staff calling in sick. Liaise with an assistant headteacher about staff cover, followed by preparation of absence lists, out-of-school registers and, hopefully, completion of the staff sickness forms.

9.30 Post arrives and must be distributed to different departments: this can be difficult when items are potentially of interest to more than one department. The morning "diplomatic bag" from the other school site also arrives and must be checked.

10.30 A quick coffee at my desk before making the day's arrangements - which are different every day - with the headteacher, such as today's press photo call for the presentation of trophies. Afterwards, liaise with the women in the office about the general work of the day.

12.15pm Call in at the Kilrymont Road site to check on staff cover and see to any other problems - there's not enough time to do this every day, though.

1.15 Lunch

2.15 Meeting with the accounts assistant and accountant to form a new finance group and tighten up financial procedures in the school.

3.30 Catch up with the paperwork and the post. Sometimes the staff sickness forms get relegated to this time on a busy day.

4.30 Meeting with the head to work on today's post once all is quiet in school.

5.00 Try to set off for home, but some days I take work with me.

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