Joyce Buchanan, Enquire Helpline Officer

1. What does your role involve?

I have been a Helpline Officer with Enquire for over 9 years. The main remit is to respond to additional support for learning enquiries that come via the telephone, e-mail, website enquiries, letter and recently Facebook and Twitter.

I have approximately one day a month off the helpline rota and there are times when the helpline is quieter so I have responsibility for several other areas of work. These include preparing monthly reports of helpline activity for team meetings and contributing to the quarterly and annual reports to our funders, the Scottish Government, and Children in Scotland who manage the service. I also co-ordinate a CPD programme to help advisers build up knowledge in other areas, related to additional support for learning, to enable them to respond more effectively to enquiries. I contribute to regular reviews of our publications and information to ensure it is factually correct and up to date.

2. What do you think are the main challenges of the job?

We offer impartial advice and information to callers but we do not take on the role of an advocate or supporter.  This can present a real challenge when a caller contacts us who is often exhausted and struggling to cope emotionally with the difficult situation they find themselves in but desperate to find a way forward to improve things for their child’s education.  We try to be as responsive and supportive as we can and often this is enough to help the caller regroup their thoughts and establish the next step.  Sometimes we sense that the caller may not be able to proceed without help so we try our best to find some form of local support for them, though this can be very thin on the ground in many areas.

Changes to the budgets available in local authorities has frequently led to a reduction of support services including the loss of support staff. Education authorities have a continuing duty to provide support for children who need it, so we have to try to balance our advice by being totally realistic about the situations faced by schools but also looking at the needs of each individual child and how we can help the caller have a reasoned approach to the school.

3. In what ways does your work make a direct difference to the lives of young people, and their families?

The largest percentage of callers is parents/carers. I think one of our main roles is to empower callers to be able to take forward their concerns. This can be achieved by an in-depth chat with myself or another adviser about an individual situation or by looking at our various guides, factsheets and website information or a combination of all of these.   We very rarely get calls from young people themselves.

We do not follow up directly on calls and only know outcomes when someone gives us feedback or updates. We ask callers through our user evaluation form if contacting Enquire made a difference. The vast majority of the feedback we do receive confirms how helpful contacting Enquire has been (particularly in feeling more confident) and often that our advice and suggestions had led to an improved outcome for a child and family.

4. What’s involved in a typical day in your job (if such a thing exists)?

There are normally two advisers on duty each day and we generally manage to respond to the majority of enquiries on the day they come in. If not, we aim to respond to telephone enquiries within 2 working days and email/web enquiries within 3 days.

My day is very dependent on the number of enquiries we receive. Some days it is non-stop with phone calls and email enquiries. On average it takes about 65 minutes to respond to an enquiry. This includes responding to the caller, following up the enquiry with research if required and getting back to the caller with additional information.  I then input a summary of the enquiry into our confidential database (with the caller’s permission) to help deal more efficiently with any subsequent contact from that person.

Enquiries can be brief, straightforward or factual but often they involve very complex situations. Following a complex enquiry, I often have to spend time with other advisers discussing the situation to ensure I have given the caller all the relevant information and also to ‘off load’ emotionally if it has been a difficult call.

5. What led you to your current role?

I have two grown up children and was a primary teacher for just short of 30 years. When I left teaching I thought my background and experience in schools would be beneficial to the Helpline Officer’s role as it would help me have an understanding of the scenarios described during an enquiry, from both the parents’ and practitioners’ angle.

6. What is the most rewarding part of the job?

It can be a very challenging role when someone calls with a really upsetting and difficult situation but often the caller finishes by saying that they feel better for talking about it. This in itself is quite rewarding as many of our callers feel they have no one else prepared to listen to them and acknowledge their problems.

As I said, we often do not hear any more from a caller following their enquiry. When I do get an update on a situation telling me of a positive outcome for the child and family or even the caller thanking me for the helpful information and advice provided that feels quite satisfying.

7. What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your job?

We hear from callers about difficulties with a particular child’s education and through conversation it becomes clear how the situation has arisen and how it could easily have been resolved earlier, if there had been more discussion or clearer explanations about why things were being done the way they were. This is something we always try to encourage callers to do.

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