Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Dial 'M' for misery

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Rupert Tillyard wants to complain about the automated phone systems in schools. But at the moment, all operators are busy. However, his column is very important to us...

Phone rage - surely you've experienced it. It's Saturday morning and you're calling about your mobile phone contract/ parking ticket/faulty dishwasher.

"Thank you for calling. Please listen carefully to the following options. If you have a billing enquiry press 2; if you wish to upgrade your service press 3; for all other enquiries please hold... All our operators are busy at present. Your call is important to us."

Not important enough! But admit it - how many of us have automatic phone systems in our schools?

It goes something like this:

"You have reached Composite Secondary School." (Slow speaking voice with exaggerated accent.) "If you wish to report an absence please press 2." (Clears throat.) "If you wish to speak to the exam officer please press 3." (Sound of giggling in the background at which point you either ring off or sit wondering if it was the deputy head or the office manager who made the recording and what accent that really is.)

"You are being held in a queue. You are number 56. Your call is important to us but all our operators are busy just now."

Your mind starts to wander as the automatic system drones on. It's endlessly polite but invariably unhelpful, not to say untruthful. The truth would go something like this:

"If you are ringing to make a delivery, please just turn up; you'll be at the wrong door but it will be quicker than this phone call. If you wish to speak to the caretaker, hard luck mate - we're still trying to speak to him. If you are phoning from the LA, please press 9 if it actually matters or whistle quietly if not.

"If you wish to speak to the office, press 5, very politely. If you are the catering company please press the hash key. If you wish to speak to the PE department please press up. If you would like to speak to the head, you must be joking."

Some systems offer a submenu option here:

"For 'traditional' head press 1 and have Christian name and funny anecdote ready. For federated head please call the school they are in today and have new job offer ready. For executive head, please tune to Radio 4. For super-head, please press 100,000 or more and have credit card ready. For academy head, please redial the DCSF."

Continuing with the main menu:

"If you are a parent ringing to complain, please consider carefully whether there's any point - we're doing our best. If you are a company following up on a sales call, please press 7 where you will be on hold indefinitely. If you are a local resident - honestly, if we could do anything about it we would.

"If you are calling about your child's exam marks, have you considered that there should be more to education than getting high grades? If you are the chair of governors you've hit the wrong speed dial key... again. If you would like to talk to a human being, please press 6."

On pressing button 6:

"Just joking! Please continue to hold. In the meantime here is some Vivaldi... well okay, it's a xylophone, but this is a school; we had to take the cheap system. If you prefer Eminem you are probably phoning the wrong number."

And then suddenly:

"Hello. Composite Comprehensive, how may I help you?"

This sudden human contact can be disconcerting, not to mention leaving you with the vague feeling that the automatic system rang off rather abruptly - rudely really - without saying goodbye or finishing the song.

"Oh, hello, can I...err... speak to the... err... Mrs Thomas, please."

"I'll try for you."

It's a false dawn of course.

"I'm sorry she's not in her office just now. Can I take a message?"

"Yes. Could you ask her to call me?"

And so begins the long game of ringing each other back when the other is busy.

"Hello. Oh yes you phoned earlier. I'll try for you... No she's teaching." (Yeah, right). "I'll ask her to ring you." Ha! Now it's her turn to get caught in our automated system.

If you've never had this experience, a PA is looking after you too well. You need to get out and experience the real world and then maybe consider hiring a receptionist.

For the rest of us, thank goodness for email. If the LA system is working, that is.

Rupert Tillyard is a deputy head in Yorkshire.


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