Our very own creme de la creme

21st September 2001 at 01:00
SOME of our broadsheet newspapers carry regular supplements dedicated to features about office life and those who work there. They rejoice in pretentious titles like Cr me and contain photographs of svelte, metropolitan ladies committed to the perfection of their secretarial skills.

I confess to being hooked on the articles and the insights they have brought me. Cr me ladies are into post-modern fashion - this appears to mean that it is now acceptable to buy clothes from mail-order catalogues as a sign of long working hours which leave no time for visiting shops - and, according to their reading preferences as described in the Bookworm column, they seem to be responsible for the mystery of how Captain Corelli's Mandolin became such a mega-seller.

I have learnt about the benefits of the fold-up bike in speedily covering the distance from tube station to workplace and have been grateful for the information that "clicking the New button in most Microsoft Office programs opens a new document".

But the article which I always turn to first is A Working Relationship, describing the activities of personal assistants who work with slightly unusual businessmen, like the director of an events management company, or with celebrities of the calibre of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Richard Whiteley. Apparently our business and celebrity heroes cannot function without a PA to open their mail, arrange their diaries or book their chauffeur-driven cars and, according to the advertisements, PAs can earn between pound;25,000 and pound;35,000.

The secretaries in Cr me articles are valued by their employers and the organisations in which they work, but a business correspondent recently commented that the title of secretary would soon disappear as it was regarded as denoting a menial status more associated with being an unthinking copying machine or a provider of tea and coffee.

What does that say about school secretaries, whose proper job description is really "clerkess"? Many headteachers still use the term "secretary" in a conscious effort to provide some status since working conditions and salaries would not qualify these ladies for a Cr me feature even though they are tackling jobs well beyond the demands of the celebrity PAs.

Secretaries are the Cinderellas of school organisation, too often taken for granted until they are absent, when it becomes painfully obvious how vital they are to the good running of the establishment. The job has changed by stealth along with the increasing complexity of schools.

Once, the secretary answered the phone, typed some letters and counted the petty cash; today she is on the front line. She deals with all visitors, whether parent, plumber or Peruvian acrobat, but she will also be first to meet threats and aggression and it is her skills which will have drawn the fire by the time the matter is passed along the line.

Heads and teachers may have taken over some typing duties by thinking straight to computer but devolved school management gave secretaries a new area of responsibility in the day to day running of the school budget and it would be a foolish headteacher who did not involve her in long-term financial planning.

Most important, the experienced secretary will be a vital repository of a large amount of confidential information on pupils and staff by virtue of her position at the centre of the school. Often, her knowledge and experience qualify her to be regarded as an informal member of the management team and there are some fortunate heads who know that it is really the secretary who is in charge of the school when the head and depute are away.

School secretaries are valuable and deserve as much recognition of their worth as the personal assistants in Cr me. Booking of the chauffeured car is not required although, personally, I would be happy to know that our secretary is not a follower of Captain Corelli and his mandolin.

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