“I can find out everything that I need to know about morale in a school by looking at staff absence.”
These are the words of the National Schools’ Commissioner Sir David Carter, spoken to me over a decade ago when I was lucky enough to work with him. I thought that there was a lot in it then, and I think there’s a lot in it now.
But these days, I am in the fortunate position of visiting other schools regularly in the course of my work, and I have found there is another indicator of the health of a school that is just as telling: the experience of the reception.
It should be self-evident to us as leaders that the first impression our schools make is critical. We go to great lengths to produce impressive school websites and prospectuses in which the sun always shines, all ties are 12 stripes long and everyone’s hair is nit-free and of a suitable length and colour. I am sure we drill our front-office staff about what to do when an Ofsted inspection team arrive, but do we set the same standard for everyone else that crosses our threshold? My experiences suggest otherwise. Here are the major issues schools need to tackle.
The rise of the machines
The use of computer monitor-based signing in systems seems to be on the increase. I can see how these could make the process of monitoring who’s on-site at any one time more efficient, but they are a soulless first experience in a school if not accompanied by a human being to give you a warm welcome. I don’t mind signing in on a monitor. I don’t mind that it won’t allow me to put an apostrophe in O’Brien. I don’t mind, despite my creaking joints, squatting so my face fits in the camera frame for a picture. I’d just like to be able to talk to a colleague while I am in the process of doing that. Just because technology has taken away the necessity of talking to a visitor, doesn’t mean that you should.
You’ll never ever guess what I heard!
The most common treat I get when waiting in schools’ reception areas is gossip. I’ve heard about private medical matters, will disputes, suspicions of an affair between senior leaders and, the most common one, rumours about who’s resigning this term. Our reception area is very open – we don’t have a sliding glass door to ensure privacy – and we have to remind ourselves of how easy it is to be overheard by visitors or students.
A reception area without a student in sight is a bizarre thing to behold in a school, but it frequently happens. My favourite places are those where students are present. Some schools have student receptionists and these people are great to talk to while I’m waiting. You can find a lot out about a place by chatting to them as they’re always refreshingly frank. Our open reception area can sometimes be flooded with 30 or 40 students off to a lesson or lunch. This brings with it certain risks as there’s a chance that one of 40 teenagers may utter something you wish they hadn’t said. However, one of them will be guaranteed to stop and chat with waiting visitors. They’re naturally very gregarious and visitors love the fact that they can chat to passing students.
I love looking at children’s work, certificates and displays in reception areas. What does your reception say about your school? Is it a chance to celebrate the achievements of the children or is it dominated by a picture of the head and some students, as I saw recently, leaping in to the air with a certificate from Ofsted describing them as “outstanding”?
The human touch
I once visited a school with an airlock system in Reception. I was buzzed in through the first door and then stood for fully 15 seconds while the receptionist challenged me to a game of stare-outs – try it, that’s a long time. Eventually a flicker of her eyes betrayed the fact that I needed to press another buzzer to be allowed through the airlock. Before I had even walked through this second door, I was intensely irritated. My status or reason for visiting were irrelevant – I was visiting to help the headteacher prepare for an Ofsted inspection – but I was made to feel unwelcome and I felt sad if that was the greeting a prospective parent got.
Whichever way you organise your reception, the first impression visitors get is made or broken on that first interaction. One of our local schools has a receptionist, Mandy, who makes a point of knowing all regular visitors. She does this so well that she informed me as I walked through the front door for a meeting recently, before I had uttered a word, that I had turned up at the wrong school. She knew why I usually visit the school and had reasoned that I must be in the wrong place. She was, of course, right. Every school needs a Mandy.
Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey @JarlathOBrien