What does a perfect office look like?

I had this comment on an earlier piece of mine about interruptions and requests for urgent work, from Sofie White, at Coads Green School in Cornwall. With her permission part of her email is reproduced below…

We have tea and biscuits made for us everyday by teaching and non teaching staff. Even the headteacher makes us several drinks everyday.

We are very fortunate at our school as we have lots of time saving strategies in place, it’s all about people management in a nice way.

We get everyone to email requests or write it down on the school day diary. So we then can time manage ourselves as to priorities jobs.

We also us school comms and parents can text in absences and this links straight into sims attendance.

We also have an office letter boxes for parents to post letters and reply slips.

This commentary is interesting in that it is in such contrast to the reports that I receive from many (although not all) of the administrators, bursars and SBMs who are on the courses in school efficiency and school administration that the School of Education Administration and Management run.

What it reminds me of is the fact that in addition to all the technical details of how to make an office more efficient, there is also the issue of being relaxed and friendly. From the reports that I get, not every school office is a thoroughly relaxed working environment.

I’m working on ideas as to why this is so and what might be done about it, and I’ll continue with this theme next time – but all suggestions are welcome.

Meanwhile, Sofie has shown us all that it is possible to have a warm and friendly operation within a school office. Sofie doesn’t mention whether anyone in the school’s admin is having to do unpaid overtime – something that we found was widespread in our survey earlier this year, and something that is a central cause of stress and frustration.

And that makes me think of another issue we have not resolved as yet. What is it that exists within the schools where there is no regular unpaid overtime in the school office that schools with unpaid overtime don’t have? Is it more staff, or is it the way in which the systems within the office work, or is it the way in which work comes into the office?

More research is needed – but if you have any insights please do let me know. Write to Tony@schools.co.uk and put the word Efficiency in the subject line.

Many thanks

Tony Attwood

Dealing with the overload

Many school offices face problems with requests for urgent work, interruptions and phone calls. Yet the solutions are well established and can be introduced anywhere.

As I have mentioned before, this year I am tutoring on some of the distance learning courses that the School of Educational Administration and Management run, and having not done this for a few years I am fascinated by how the same problems can occur in a number of schools.

In such circumstances it always strikes me as sad that each school’s administration is left to sort out on its own a problem which has been faced by thousands (yes literally thousands) of schools before.

Of course, each school is different, but the nature of the problem, the solution, and the inevitable challenge to the solution (and the resolution of that challenge) is pretty much the same in each case.

I thought of this particularly this week in looking at the reports of school administrators who are working on the issue of time management.

Typically three problems are highlighted: interruptions on the phone, interruptions by teachers, and the demand for immediate action for supposedly “urgent jobs”.

Phone issues can never be totally eliminated but they can be reduced by telling parents that (for example) reports of student absence should be made by email, and that all dates of special events, half terms and the like are on the home page of the website.

Now this approach is countered by the view that, “I’ve told them but they still phone”. The answer then is to have a simple option button “Press 1 to report that your child is not attending today” and then leave them on hold, while they hear the message that “you can report absences by email”. After a while the number of phone calls you get decreases – you don’t get rid of all of them, but enough for the difference to be noticeable.

In terms of demands for urgent work from teachers, this is normally dealt with in negotiation with the head or deputy or SBM or bursar.

The basic problem here is that because work hits the office from every quarter no one has any idea how much work is actually coming in. For each teacher it is one job, and the attitude is “why can’t you do it now?” They don’t see everyone else’s work and thus don’t see the overload. They get into the habit of solutions at the last minute and expect you to play your part.

The resolution involves working with senior management who will take the message to staff that (for example) photocopying will take 3 days. Staff will then try to get round this (they always do) with “I know I shouldn’t ask but…” You need a prepared response – such as “The head has told me I’ll be sacked if I don’t follow the directive” or “I will but will you do something for me?” (You suggest making you a coffee – it is quite humiliating for them, and you won’t be asked again.)

Or you maintain a chart for the number of urgent requests you get. Once the teachers see themselves marked up they normally stop – no one wants the prize for being the most disorganised (i.e. having the most requests for urgent work).

In terms of interruptions, many schools have a Golden Hour in which no one but no one is allowed at the school office while you get the urgent work done. Again many will try to break the rule, and you should ideally work with the head or other person to agree how this will be handled.

The key point in all this is that a simple announcement by the head to staff that they should not be putting in requests for urgent work will be ignored. You might get away with it for a week, but in the end you will be back where you started. So you must expect initiatives like this to fail – and have a back up in place.

Yes, it is a battle – but it is a battle that if fought will make your job more pleasant and far less stressful.

If you are interested in learning more about the various courses the SEAM runs, there are details on http://www.admin.org.uk/courses.html

Saving money on your school’s postage

It seems that many schools are paying more for postage than is strictly necessary.

Last week I asked the question about postage costs, noting that there were three ways of paying for postage:

  1. By stamps (by far the most expensive and inconvenient)
  2. Via a franking machine, which gets discounts on the postage stamp costs but has its own costs (including some hidden costs it seems)
  3. Via a Royal Mail account which has discounts on the cost of stamps but no franking machine costs and no hidden account costs.

I had a range of replies on this – and I set out a few below.

However interestingly, none of these related to holding an account with Royal Mail at the present. So I’ve done my own research into this, and before I give a selection of the replies I received to my request for information, here’s the low down on getting an account.

But first, if you have been told that Royal Mail don’t give credit, this indeed used to be the case, but they did change this some years ago. The current system is simple – you have a PPI (a postage paid impression – which can be a rubber stamp or can be a design printed onto your envelopes.) Royal Mail issue an invoice at the end of each month and you have to pay it within four weeks.

There is a minimum order level, which can be any of these: 25 items a week or £1000 a month or £5000 a year. I appreciate that smaller schools might not reach this level, but most schools probably would qualify, I feel.

Now I am not proposing that a school should adopt any particular system of postage, but it seems to me that for many schools the Royal Mail account system is easy to administer, is cheaper than stamps, and gives you credit. If you think that sounds right then you just call 08457 950 950, and click option 1 then option 4 and then hold for an operator.

The Royal Mail refer to this as the Business Customer Helpline – and for them a school is a business customer. They have no particular arrangements for schools in this regard – you get the same treatment as any business.

Now onto a selection of the replies I received. As always, thanks to everyone who did reply.

First, on franking machines I had an email from http://frankingmachines.expertmarket.co.uk a company that I have not personally come across before. Here is part of what they said,

“You are quite correct that with a franking machine you have to pay a monthly rental price (although you can buy new machine for around £1,000 or used ones from as low as £495). Rental prices for basic models are usually about £20 a month + cost of postage, ink, etc.

“As of April 1st you’ll save 12p per 1st class letter and 16p per 2nd class letter using a franking machine. To matters even more confusing (why would the Royal Mail want to make it simple) you can save an additional 1p/2p respectively if your machine uses Mailmark™ technology. I believe this is more than the discount offered by other options.”

A reply from one school however gave a very different view of franking machines. The school has asked to remain anonymous (and just to assure everyone, I never publish personal or school names without express permission. But to balance it, I’m not going to mention the name of the company that supplies the machine either). Here is the comment.

“We have a franking machine lease through . We won’t be renewing it!!

“We’ve been hit by many hidden charges, which were never mentioned. They tempt you in with lower postage cost but then on top of the rental they hit you with:-

  • Insurance for the machine
  • A Monthly Maintenance Cost – which we are never going to use!
  • A download charge (transaction fee) every time you add more postage.
  • VERY expensive ink cartridges -£60
  • There is also a charge each time there is a change to postage rates – when you update the machine.
  • AND a charge for having a paper invoice!

“Their support team is in too and it’s very hard to find out information. I think we will be back to stamps in 2016. With all these hidden charges the cost of stamps is definitely cheaper. Schools should be warned.”

Here’s a third reply:

“We have Royal Mail Smart Stamp, where we print our own stamps as we need them. We top this up on line every time we need too, it is efficient, clean and saves time. If you accidentally print too many stamps you can claim the money back on line as well.”

And the next:

“In a past life, I previously used advance purchase through Royal Mail and the difficulty is that you must process the invoice within a very short time frame.

“I moved our school’s post system from stamps to franking machine – purchasing the franking machine outright. The savings on postage are considerably more than the difference between the prepaid postage credit and the full cost of buying stamps – in that each letter is accurately weighed and posted at the “correct” postage rate – not simply putting on two first class stamps instead of one. Our postage budget has reduced by around 15% over the year as a direct result of using a franking machine.”

And one more

“At the moment we use a Franking Machine but only because we were given a half price rental deal at the time. There are a lot of hidden costs, eg. admin charge when we top up the machine, admin charge if we are even a day late with our rental payment, expensive ink cartridges, admin charge when there is a postal rate change, really the list goes on. I think it has become more of a convenience now, as we are a rural school rather than making any actual savings versus purchasing stamps.”

I do hope you find that helpful.

Tony Attwood
School of Education Administration and Management.


The alternatives to the franking machine

There are three ways of sending out the post from a school. The first, and by far the most expensive is to use stamps.  The second is to use a Franking Machine (which itself involves an expense and I believe has to be pre-paid, but does result in the cost of each letter being far less than if you use stamps), and the third is to have an account with Royal Mail.
Now I am not an expert on all these approaches, and I must admit that my office has not used a franking machine for many years, so maybe the situation has changed.  But, as I understand it, with the franking machine one pays the same discount cost as one pays with an account but also has to pay a leasing charge to the franking machine company.
Royal Mail, of course, won’t give an account to anyone who asks for one – you have to be doing a certain amount of mailing – but I suspect all secondary schools and all the larger primary schools are within the level set by Royal Mail.
The benefit (and again I am ready to be corrected here as I don’t have all  the details to hand) with an account is that one pays at the end of each month, and there are no account or machine charges.
If you have any experience with franking machines or a Royal Mail account could you spare a moment to drop me a line and let me know, and I’ll publish the results.
Please email me at Tony@schools.co.uk and write POSTAGE in the subject line.
Many thanks
Tony Attwood
Director, School of Educational Management and Administration

Common problems in the school office

I recently asked for any thoughts on problems besetting school offices, and thought I would present a few of the problems reported to me.

It turns out that the questions put forward are very similar to those that are regularly debated by students on the courses run by the School of Educational Administration and Management (details on www.admin.org.uk if you are not familiar with our work). This suggests to me that there is a hard core of issues which affects many schools across the whole of the UK.

Here are the top five comments I received. I’ve added some thoughts in terms of answers (in italics) to a couple of issues, but please do drop me a line (Tony@schools.co.uk) with any further thoughts (please add Puzzling Questions to the subject line).

I’ll give answers to the questions not answered here, next week.

1. How do other school offices cope with interruptions by teaching staff?

The favourite approach is to have a Golden Hour in which absolutely no one is allowed in the office other than office staff. If any one comes in and says, “I know I’m not supposed to but…” agree to whatever is being asked, but say “in return can you make me a coffee at breaktime?” That usually stops them.

2. How can one persuade persistent non-payers of dinner money etc to make payments?

3. What is the best way to deal with parents who fail to read newsletters, emails and the school website and then complain that they never get any information.

Send all parents a letter at the start of term saying that all required information is available on the website, and in the school’s weekly email. Then for each parent who comes in complaining say, “Didn’t you get the letter about this?” If they say no, make a big point of checking the postal address you have is right, and then simply say, “OK I’ll get in touch with the Royal Mail.” When the parent looks bemused, expecting some sort of grovelling apology, simply add, “Well, we certainly posted it to you; I know because I did it myself. So Royal Mail is not delivering to you, and we need to sort it out with them. In the meanwhile it is all on the website, and in the weekly email.”

What you are doing here is not rising to the issue, not offering a solution and not apologising.They are stuck – either they call you a liar and suggest you didn’t post the letter, or they have to wait. The heat is removed and they won’t do it again – because they know that if they do, you’ll just contact RM again. (There is of course no need to contact RM in real life. It is just a ploy!)

4. The most effective way to deal with the junk email that pours into the school office.

5. How to deal with unsolicited sales telephone calls which have increased considerably in the last few years.

Have an intercept on the phone that asks the caller to press 1 for admin, 2 to report a child’s absence, 3 for an unsolicited sales call or survey.

No one will press 3 of course, they will press 1, but as soon as they start just say, “I’ll just transfer you” and transfer them to a message which says, “Thank you for your unsolicited sales call. Please leave your message after the tone.”

Also register for the Telephone Preference Service. It’s free and although it doesn’t stop all sales calls, it should cut the number. http://www.tpsonline.org.uk/tps/number_type.html

If you want to add to the list with any other recurrent problems you face, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk with the phrase Puzzling Questions in the subject line.

Tony Attwood
Director, School of Educational Management and Administration



How to reduce unpaid overtime, and make life in the office more pleasant and more fulfilling

One interesting finding from research undertaken by the School of Educational Administration and Management is that the way in which school offices are set up and organised varies enormously from one school to the next. 

Two schools with the same level of administrative procedures to handle can have completely different approaches. As a result staff in one school might be subjected to endless unpaid overtime, while others are able to complete their work comfortably within paid hours. 

This is not necessarily because one school gives its office staff more to do, but because of the way in which the procedures and systems within the office are organised. 

Unfortunately, in many school offices there has been a view that suggests that the way things are done in this school is the same in every school. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Indeed, as many school administrations have discovered, there are many alternative ways of organising the way the school office works, both individually and in terms of its overall function. 

It is to help school administrators to develop more efficient ways of running their school office, while considering also the broader implications and background to their work, that the Certificate in Educational Administration was developed by the School of Educational Administration and Management. 

The course looks at a variety of topics, ranging from ways of handling school visitors, to leadership and how it affects the role of the administrator, from time management to how best to cope with the endless change that now seems to be at the heart of education, from facilities management to ICT, budgeting to business management. 

The course involves preparing short reports on a number of activities and the writing of six essays spread throughout the year. Students work with a tutor and have a full course manual and access to a large number of recent articles relating to school administration. 

And, by way of introduction, everyone who registers with the course receives a report on how some administrators who have taken the course have dealt with the problems outlined. 

If you would like to know more there is a detailed set of information on our website 

You can find our full on-line prospectus here 

The next starting date for the course is 12th May 2014 with the closing date for applications being the 5th May 2014. If you have any enquiries or would like a printed prospectus please call 01536 399 007 or email enquiries@admin.org.uk 

For an application form please click here

Tony Attwood
School of Educational Administration and Management 


The benefit of asking parents their views

I recently wrote on the subject of schools where parking is a problem. My note brought in a very high number of responses, mostly from schools that suffer from the same problem as that outlined in my note – namely, schools where parents park in uncooperative and sometimes utterly unsafe ways.

Several correspondents made two points: that the police and local council wardens were unhelpful in solving the problem (putting in very occasional visits) and that parents could be extremely aggressive over the issue (as noted in my original email).

So what is to be done?

My own view, for what it is worth, is that the solution here is very similar to the solution that is to be found to a variety of issues. Ask the parents their views via a questionnaire in which the names of the respondents are not linked to the views expressed.

In other words, you simply ask (in regards to this issue),

Do you feel there is an issue in relation to parking of cars in order to drop off or pick up children?

What do you feel should be done about it?

… and in each case put a range of answers.

You can create questionnaires to send out as emails by using on-line software such as Survey Monkey https://www.surveymonkey.com/ If you have never seen such a survey try it out (you can do this for free).

What you do with the results depends on what they are, but if you do get (for example) a vast majority of parents saying that yes there is a problem and they are horrified at the way other parents park, you might want to circulate these results to parents – with their suggestions as to what is to be done.

With questionnaires like this it is always worth thinking about where you are trying to go in terms of the information you want, and how you are going to use the information.

For example, if I were to do a survey of schools in the UK asking if the school has a PR person or department, (followed by questions about how many press releases are put out, if pupils or students are involved, who the press releases are sent to, etc) I might do this in order to get information that I could use when writing to non-subscribers to this newsletter, suggesting that having a PR person in the school is now quite commonplace, and that such a person can do the school a lot of good.

If you do ever use a survey of the type outlined above, please do let me know (even if you don’t want me to write about it. I always abide by the wishes of my readers!)
Tony Attwood
Director, School of Educational Management and Administration

Fighting the parents; the issue of parking outside the school

Some years ago I had a route to work which included driving along a fairly narrow urban street within which there was a primary school.

As it happened, my journey took me past the school just as parents were dropping children off in the morning, often parking both erratically and illegally. And on one occasion I only just missed having an accident as a child in the back seat of the car opened the door onto the traffic without looking behind.

Fortunately I was crawling along at about 10mph, knowing how bad the parking and disembarkation was, and so was able to slam the brakes on in time to avoid hitting the 10 year old who was already getting out of the car, oblivious to the world.

What made the day rather worse for me was that the parent then came up to my car, thumped on the window and told me to be more careful, in no uncertain terms.

As a result of the incident I dropped a line to the head of the school and to the police, pointing out the dangers. The school didn’t reply, but the police did phone me and said they were aware, had had other complaints and were working on the matter, although I have to admit I never really saw much change.

I think that for many of us, any near miss can stay in the mind for a long time – and doubly so if a child is involved. And since that moment I have often wondered what I would have done had I been running the school.

These thoughts came back to me this week with the news that another school in the county in which I live has had trouble with parking, only this time the head has been proactive in taking photos of about half a dozen badly parked cars each week.

She said the details had been shown to police but “no agencies seem to want to do anything about it”. Northamptonshire Police said in reply that they included the school in its patrols “as often as we are able to.”

The head of the school said that she had tried talking to parents, but some ignored her or were “downright rude”. “One parent told me I was doing my job wrong and that I should be getting a multi-storey car park built in the playground,” she said.

It does seem to me a very tricky issue. No school wants an accident happening by its entrance, and no school, and certainly no school administrator, wants to have a fight with some of the parents. But, as we all know, sending letters round asking in general terms for parents to park more responsibly is never going to have a lasting effect. You might see an improvement for a week, if you are lucky, then old habits return.

But it also struck me that maybe this head was doing the right thing in that perhaps there are more reasonable and responsible parents than there are unreasonable parents, in which case, although some might in the end choose another school, more would choose this school because it had stood up to the driving-bullies.

I’ve never resolved the issue, but I have to say that my sympathies are very much with the head who is standing up to the parents and pointing out when they are in the wrong. Given what I have seen around some schools I’m just amazed that she is only collecting half a dozen license numbers a week.

I would be interested to hear from any of you who have been involved in such an issue -especially if you have found an answer.
Tony Attwood
Director, School of Educational Management and Administration

A myth, an insult or the answer to everything?

Are schools really inefficient, or is inefficiency just a government story to excuse its lack of investment?

Take a look around your school and the chances are that you won’t find too many obvious inefficiencies in the day-to-day practice of running your school.

But take a look at your local supermarket, GP surgery or high street coffee shop and you might well feel the reverse is true – the inefficiencies are obvious for all to see.

Now this is not to malign your local surgery, supermarket or coffee shop. Rather I mention it because this observation is, for many, the starting point for understanding efficiency and inefficiency in organisations.

The fact is that for most of us it is easy to see problems with the way organisations with which we are not associated are run. But when it comes to looking at where we work, it can be much harder to see that anything could be done more effectively.

Indeed, if you have ever tried to put in a suggestion to any organisation about things that might be improved, you may well have found that their resistance to change is fairly solid. None of us likes to be told that we are not efficient.

However, those schools that have implemented what has become the standard four-stage approach to efficiency savings, and have done it without taking on board any sort of view that inefficiency is a sign of failure, have mostly made massive savings.

Schools that have made this step forwards have recognised from the beginning that all organisations are inefficient – and become more inefficient over time. Only when someone starts to ask questions about “why are we doing it this way?” can things start to move.

However, even then all is not plain sailing, because in all organisations (and in all this schools are no different from any other place where people work together) there is resistance to change.

What’s more, even when changes are made, there is a need to keep them under review so that colleagues don’t slip back into the old way of doing things.

And just to add to the problem of making efficiency changes, it is quite normal for those working in an organisation to take the view that their organisation is different, that they are not averse to change, and that the sort of difficulties outlined here won’t apply to them.

Six years ago, in order to help managers and administrators in schools come to terms with these unexpected findings, the School of Educational Administration and Management set up the Certificate in School Efficiency – a two month on-line course suitable for managers and administrators throughout the school.

As part of the course each participant receives details of efficiency measures that have been introduced recently by other schools. Savings that have been reported from those doing the course range from a few thousand pounds a year to over £35,000 a year, every year.

There are details of the course on http://www.admin.org.uk/CertSchoolEff.html. The next starting dates for the course are 17th March 2014, 12th May 2014 and 9th June 2014. If you have any enquiries or would like a printed prospectus please call 01536 399 007 or email enquiries@admin.org.uk

Tony Attwood
School of Educational Administration and Management

In some schools everyone does, in others no one does

Recent survey shows that schools differ enormously in the way in which they handle emails.

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to reply to our recent survey of the use of email addresses for individual members of staff in schools.

The major finding is that in 96% of secondary schools and 86% of primary schools all staff are allocated their own email addresses.

But 37% of secondary schools and 72% of primary schools don’t give out the email addresses of staff to parents.

Now this is particularly interesting (at least it is to me!) because the more communication that goes direct to teachers’ and managers’ personal email addresses, the less there is for the school office staff to handle.

Quite a few respondents to the survey talked about this point. Some said that the teachers refused to have their email addresses given out because they feared that they would be bombarded by spam emails, and that, it seems, was the end of the story.

And yet in so many schools, the email addresses of teachers are revealed, and these schools don’t seem to be suffering. Teachers are perfectly able to unsubscribe from unwanted emails and indeed block senders from whom they don’t wish to receive emails.

But the figures also show that school offices are having to deal with a vast influx of unwanted emails. So what happens to the emails that arrive at the school office?

In secondary schools 18% of administrators forward on all the adverts that are addressed to a specific teacher. 67% forward some of the adverts and 15% forward none of the adverts.

In primary schools 12% forward all of the emails, 79% forward some, and 9% forward none at all.

The majority of primary schools (72%) don’t send parents the email address of staff, even if the parent specifically asks, whereas in secondary schools only 38% don’t give out email addresses, even if the parents ask.

My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that getting rid of the issue of dealing with emails makes the work of the school office much easier to handle. In many schools I would say it cuts out half an hour to an hour a day. In some an hour, or even more.

All one has to do is to remove the school’s general email address from the school website, and write to parents telling them the individual email addresses of senior management and teachers, and from that point you can ignore the general address, and save a lot of time.

But, of course, it is not for me to tell anyone what to do.

However, let me end with what for me is the most astonishing finding of our survey.

Only around half of the managers in secondary schools whom you might specifically expect to be dealing with the outside world via email (heads, deputies, bursars, head of IT, site managers) actually have their own email address!

In primary schools it is higher – closer to 60%.

It seems to me that these are the people who should be sending and receiving their own emails. The implication of the survey is that in many schools their emails are travelling via the school office – and that seems to me an awful waste of office time.

My view (and again I stress, I am not trying to tell anyone what to do, I’m just reflecting on these findings) is that schools do need to communicate with the outside world. Heads of department need to get the best equipment at the best price for teaching their subject. Site managers have an endless need to ensure that the school’s buildings are kept in order. And so on. Personal email accounts are the ideal way of doing this.

Dealing with the world via email is easy, environmentally responsible and cheap. And it is a matter of simplicity to stop the generic emails coming in and taking up such a huge amount of office time.

So what we have are several different systems which can be classified as:

  • Type A Schools: Staff don’t want their internal emails because they fear they will get junk.
  • Type B Schools: Some staff utilise their emails, others don’t.
  • Type C Schools: All staff emails are handed out to parents and staff are expected to monitor their emails.

Many thanks to everyone who co-operated in completing this survey.

Tony Attwood

Director, School of Educational Administration and Management.

The blog for bursars and administrators