System failure

14th May 2004 at 01:00
The communications revolution is a wonderful thing. We all now have email addresses at our school. The inspiration hasn't been ICT policy - it's been driven by a much more powerful and elemental force - the wounded pride of a head teacher.

Our head, Mrs Gatsby, had been on a visit to St Cuthbert's-by-Volvo and had endured the embarrassment of being asked to leave her school email address. After a few attempts at batting away the question, she had to admit that the staff at our school don't have their own email addresses.

Well, we do now. And it has opened up a whole range of new opportunities.

Every morning we now find dozens of messages offering medical miracles for "enlargement". These are accompanied by offers of cheap mortgages, a chance to make a fortune in a business deal in west Africa and many equally unlikely offers from young women in the United States.

I'm talking about spam, the electronic junk mail that fills our in-trays with pornography and scams, despite the best efforts of the filtering software.

It might seem trivial, but it really is a very practical problem in a school setting. The staff don't like having to clean out these unpleasant messages each morning - they say that if this kind of material was being posted in their pigeonholes, they'd be talking to their union reps about it.

It also means we have to limit access to email for the pupils, because we can't risk them receiving this electronic trash. But such concerns apart, email is troubling us in other ways. For instance, what is the etiquette on finishing an email exchange?

In a small primary school like ours, we're used to being friendly - even Susan Chard who calls the staffroom the "vegetable cupboard". So how do you end a swapping of messages without appearing to snub the other person? This quandary has been torturing our small community of scholars.

You see, I get a message from Kylie Higgins who teaches reception. It asks me what time we're meeting. I reply, then she sends back a jokey comment. I can't just ignore her joke, because it will look like I'm a miserable old git.

So, after several minutes trying to think of something that will sound spontaneous and relaxed, I send back my own humorous observation. And then I have a sudden panic that it was too relaxed, or too direct, and that I've hugely offended her. I re-read my email to see how it could have been misinterpreted.

Then I'm let off the hook again, because a little yellow envelope appears and she's replied. So I have to think of another reply - and so it goes on, over-stretched exchanges that we don't know how to stop.

And what type of tone are we meant to strike? We might be friends, but these are work colleagues. I don't want to end up in a tribunal listening to extracts from my messages about what I think about the head, or one of the pupils. These emails can be as official as any other written record.

Another consequence of email, is that people sitting only a few yards away from each other will send a message rather than speak. More disconcertingly these email exchanges can be about a person who has walked into the room. So while the head is standing there, staff are running their own email commentary on her outfit, like the subtitles to a foreign language film.

Then there are whole new types of anxiety created by email, such as the fear you might have accidentally sent the message to the person you were being rude about.

And I've got to go now, because I've got dozens of messages that I haven't had a chance to answer, and every time I open my in-box and see all the waiting emails I feel a spasm of guilt.

This time-saving communication is taking up all my time.

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