Interrupted 275 times a day;News;News and opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
That's how often somebody asks something of a secondary school secretary in Aberdeen on an average working day. David Henderson reports on a study of school clerical workers.

WINNING SCHOOL trips to Disneyland, counting crisp packets and collecting vouchers for new computers are among the uncosted and disruptive duties stretching school secretaries to breaking point.

An independent study in Aberdeen, the first authoritative research in Scotland, has revealed administrative and clerical staff are working on average 80 per cent above their expected workload. Primary school secretaries are under the most pressure.

Researchers describe the work and dedication of staff as "unique in the observers' experience", with around 96 per cent of the working day fully taken up. Constant interruptions, such as answering phone calls and dealing with parents and pupils, are forcing them to abandon key duties, skip breaks and take work home.

Staff face 182 interruptions a day in primaries and 275 in secondaries, and cannot do routine tasks. "As a result, administrative and clerical employees experience high stress levels, a lack of fulfilment and a loss of productivity. When there is only one administrative or clerical person in the school, these trends are even more apparent," the report says.

John Stodter, director of education, said it was "not acceptable" for such staff to carry work home and promised action to alleviate the stress. "You cannot have a successful school unless you've got administrative and clerical staff working efficiently. They're the first people seen by parents and visitors," he said.

The council has agreed to inject pound;500,000 over the next 18 months to resolve some problems. It wants receptionists in all schools and a re-examination of outdated procedures and systems.

Unions, however, have issued formal dispute notices after failing to win backing for immediate remedies to ease burdens. Gill Thackray, Unison's branch secretary, said: "The study supports our long held belief that there has been an under-professionalisation of staff. They've been seen as the wives in the office for a long time."

She is pressing schools to reprioritise work and drop many chores loaded onto support staff. Ms Thackray said: "The report has demonstrated the need for more staffing and a profession-alisation of administrative support. But the council has taken a bit by bit approach. Feelings are strong enough to threaten action, but I'm confident we'll reach an agreement."

Jurgen Thomaneck, education convener, said he understood the concerns. It was quite clear that "initiative after initiative" had been introduced in schools and someone had to do the support work. "We have to do something about this, there's no doubt about that. It's not just teachers who suffer from an increasing bureaucratic workload," he said.

The study found methods for calculating workload were 10 years out of date. New initiatives, such as school boards, had placed extra burdens on staff. "The diversity of resource and media marketing schemes undertaken by schools, such as the Asda computer voucher scheme, Walker's Crisps vouchers, winning Disneyland trips for the school etc, similarly is unmeasured, uncosted and takes no account of the effects on employee resources," the report states.

Dealing with school clothing grant forms and free school meal tickets were other duties that used to be done centrally.

Staff are also forced to give first aid, supervise children who are unwell and dish out medicines, although these are not in their job descriptions.

They were also handling complex new technology and were increasingly asked for advice at a higher level than their job demands. Ten years ago, clerical assistants' jobs involved typing and basic tasks, including "making tea for headteachers", the report adds.


The report found that visitors to reception, and surveillance of those visitors, took up 1.8 minutes each time.

Staff answer 80 phone calls a day in secondary and 40 in primary. They gave advice to teachers and pupils 70 times a day in secondary and 52 in primary.

Security alarms need to be turned off 15 times a day in primary and special schools while operating door security and cameras has to be done 50 times a day.

Staff have "little option but to eat at the workplace".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today