'Where's the photocopier?'

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Supply teachers used to arrive with a suitcase full of tricks to educate a whole class for a week, but show me one now whose first question isn't 'Where's the photocopier?'

A dreadful calamity this week; one of those awful heart-stopping moments. Did the school flood? Did the whole staff have flu? No, both photocopiers broke down.

I've become used to the long queue that stretches out of the office door first thing in the mornings. In fact, the queue usually starts in the staffroom, at photocopier number one. It's a relatively ancient machine, and like all of us as we get older, it's often temperamental. Suddenly, a flashing light will indicate a paper jam, or an empty toner container. Staff then divide into two types: those who will open the machine and investigate, and those who hurry on to photocopier number two. I have to admit I'm mystified by this obsession with the photocopier and I try to discourage it as much as possible, although usually I'm about as successful as King Canute. I know the only way I'll really cut down its use is to issue everyone with a meter card to ration copies.

When I was a classroom teacher, if you needed multiple copies of something you had to use a messy spirit duplicator, and once you'd ruined a couple of shirts you avoided it if you could. The trouble is that today's copiers are just so easy to use. Supply teachers, for example, used to come equipped with a suitcase of tricks to educate the average class for anything up to a week, but show me one nowadays whose first question isn't "Could you direct me to the photocopier?" and I'll eat my manual on performance management.

I don't envy the children who have to suffer a day's diet of worksheets, either, and if I see another photocopied animal wordsearch, or a picture of Father Christmas where the pupils just have to fill in the red bits, I'll scream.

Having said that, a copier isn't all bad. In my room, I have the modern equivalent of the spirit duplicator, a neat piece of kit that cuts a stencil digitally, inks it, and for more than five years has produced hundreds of parents' newsletters, play scripts, and tests at a fraction of the photocopier price. The machine has been unbelievably reliable (probably because I ask teachers not to use it) and until last Wednesday I thought it was going to last forever. Then, suddenly, the "stencil jam" light came on. This had happened before, and was simple to rectify, only this time there wasn't a jammed stencil. I probed deeper into the machine, but could not make the light go out.

There was nothing for it but to ring the service engineer. After working my way through much button-pushing and an electronic rendering of Boccherini's Minuet, I was told he'd visit within eight hours. Magic, I thought. Three days later, I phoned again. The girl on the switchboard was puzzled; there was no record of my previous call, but not to worry, she'd re-log the service call.

Within half an hour, she was back on the phone. There was no record of the machine on the firm's books, which indicated it had been "removed from the site". This, I replied, was peculiar as I happened to be staring at the machine as we spoke. There was a bemused silence; she offered to consult her supervisor and ring me back within the hour.

After three hours I braved the Minuet again, to be told that the service contract had run out. I explained that I'd never had such a thing. I preferred to pay when the machine went wrong and, since it never had, I was pretty happy with that arrangement. I was passed to the service manager, who said the device could be repaired, but as it was "obsolete" the parts and labour would be expensive - and he wouldn't be able to get someone to me for at least 10 days, as he only had one engineer who understood the machine. "Really, sir," he said, and I knew what was coming, "you'd be better off thinking about a new machine."

I tried five other companies, with the same result. No one wanted to repair a five-year-old duplicator and, in despair, I hired a new one. It's bigger, flashier, and like current PCs has lots of features I'll never need. And because it does all these things, there's lots more to go wrong, too. Now I shall have to put a notice near it reading "No teachers past this point."

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south LondonEmail: mikejkent@aol.com

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