In my day job, I spend a fair bit of time trying to get in touch with teachers. I’m also a parent, with kids at three different schools. I’ve come to the conclusion that school email is broken, but that – perhaps surprisingly – it would be relatively easy to fix it. In fact, I think pretty much every school could sort this in a day over the summer, either directly or through the provider of their IT services. As usual, the problem is consistency.
I promise this won’t be a long post, but it’s something that’s been bugging me for ages – and exacerbated by the difficulties contacting teachers by any other route during the pandemic. Normal geeky service will be resumed soon.
There are two main issues with reaching a member of staff at a school. Firstly, you need to know their name. This might mean deciphering your child’s handwriting (and spelling), or finding the right page on the school site. Names change, of course, and so do people. Emailing last year’s head of science when they’ve changed role or moved school is not going to be a good use of anyone’s time.
Secondly, every school chooses a different format for emails. Initial and surname is obvious – but which comes first? Do they have more than one initial? Is there a period in between? There’s enough variation that even if you know their name, you might not get it to them. And a surprising number of schools don’t have useful error messages to help you redirect your important message.
So how could we solve this?
It’s often claimed that businesses treat employees as interchangeable parts. Let’s face it, describing your colleagues as ‘human resources’ doesn’t exactly highlight the individual aspects of the people involved. But there is a place for considering the role before the person filling it, and this is one of those situations. Obviously if I’m going to work with a science department, I’ll need to know names and faces. But for that first contact, what I need is to reach the head of science. It doesn’t matter what their name is.
Computers don’t speak English (no, not even Alexa). A basic principle of email is that the server can be instructed to accept emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and forward them to email@example.com. The user doesn’t have to care about the path. And, critically, the forwarding instructions can be changed on the server by IT quickly, easily and as often as needed. It would certainly be straightforward to do this each term, as staff roles change.
Imagine if every school used the same minimum list of standard aliases, and their own specific context was taken care of in the forwarding rules. In one setting, firstname.lastname@example.org would go to the Head, Ms Tepper. In another, it would go to the Principal, Dr Jemsin. email@example.com might go to a head of the science department, the faculty lead for science and technology, or to the head of biology who’s acting up while the boss is on sick leave.
This could never be a perfect system, but it’s got to make life easier than trying to decipher the responsibility charts on a school site which are often out of date. That can happen behind the scenes. There are considerations about spam, too, but arguably this is better handled centrally than by individual colleagues. The key point is that this only works if the same addresses are used for every school. A possible list:
- MAThead – if the school isn’t part of a MAT it goes to the Head.
- chairofgovernors – if there are no governors, there will be an equivalent panel.
- childprotection – a really important one.
- businessmanager – redirects to whoever handles the money, whether it’s the Bursar or the finance lead.
- headofyear11 etc
In a primary school, some of these would be the same but others different. Perhaps leadenglish, leadsmaths and leadscience would be useful ones to start with. It would be a smaller list, but probably one which is easier to standardise across settings.
The important thing is that it shouldn’t be hard to put together a list that covers most school settings, with some careful thought going on for the forwarding. These are about responsibilities, not the job titles or way a school has chosen to organize their subjects. If we want to be able to rely on emails rather than pressing send and hoping, then maybe it’s time to make life a little easier for everyone.