Recently, somebody from another school phoned me - and was astonished. Why? Because the phone was answered after one ring, she didn't get a message saying "Welcome to Comber Grove Primary School, please listen to the following 82 options", and she got through to me personally.
Phone any company these days and you will be subjected to layers and sub-layers of choices. By the time you push the last button, hoping you have made the right choice at each level and expecting to talk to a human being, you will be told that all the operators are busy. Even if you have phoned at one minute past opening time. You will sit listening to an electronic Boccherini minuet, and after 10 minutes you will give up.
Last week, when I tried to discover why a piece of equipment hadn't been delivered, I spent 25 minutes getting through to customer services. The lady said she would check with the warehouse ... and then found she couldn't get through. It seems amazing, in the age of supposedly easy global communication, that we have so much trouble getting in touch with anybody. Tried phoning your doctor recently? Or your broadband provider?
I dread phoning local secondary schools, or the colleges that supply us with student teachers, or the social agencies we need to deal with. If I get through the layers the phone often just rings and rings. Or the person I want isn't working that day. Or nobody bothers to phone back when I leave a message.
Which makes me feel a lot of sympathy for local education officers trying to contact their schools. Yes, they can send a collective email to everybody, but sometimes they need to phone directly and it must be incredibly frustrating to be up against automated machinery all the time and then have to leave a message at the end of it all. We have the same problems when we try to get in touch with parents whose children are sick or left uncollected after school. Although we ask for two main numbers and a back-up contact, we invariably have to leave messages on answerphones. Or the line is dead because the parent has moved to a new network provider and nobody has bothered to let us know.
So, at our last governing body meeting I was very amused to find we were being asked to adopt the local authority code of conduct policy, which included a statement that telephones should be answered within five rings and that further information could be found in its TAP or "Telephone Answering Policy". After a little investigation, I discovered that most local authorities have a TAP - long statements of the obvious that must be incredibly dull to write. I found one sporting two highlighted, important headlines: calls should be answered "promptly and politely" and messages should be replied to "quickly and effectively". There's a revelation. Who'd have thought of that?
There was lots more information. Pass on the details of the caller and the enquiry to the appropriate person. Smile when answering the telephone. Establish the identity of the caller. Gosh. So many things we had no idea about. I must tell Secretary Sandra not to keep saying, "Oi, what do you want?"
Mind you, just occasionally I am tempted to install an answerphone. Especially when Mrs White rings up to tell me why Cynthia isn't at school and then launches into long descriptions of the trouble she's having with her "various" veins and why the canary had to be put down. "Welcome to Comber Grove, push button one if you want to tell us your medical history, button two if you want to discuss avian veterinary practices ... ".
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.