Robots should replace school receptionists, claims think tank

Robots should replace hundreds of workers at the Department for Education, a think tank has suggested, claiming the government is over-staffed with a “frozen middle” of managers unable to make decisions properly.

Nearly 90,000 school administrators and receptionists should also be replaced by artificial intelligence, according to think tank Reform, in its new report Work in Progress.

The report adds that public services, including schools, can “become the next Uber”, using “gig economy” platforms to employ supply teachers and “share staff” at a lower cost while cutting out agency fees.

Whitehall managers are blocking these sorts of “necessary change”, the report says, which could trade 250,000 public-sector workers for machine and warns that every government department, including the Department for Education (DfE), is too “hierarchical”.

Emilie Sundorph, one of Reform’s report authors told Schools Week the DfE has “too many layers of management” which has created a “frozen middle” of managers “unable to take decisions and see things through properly”.

She said that a possible solution is “small, agile teams” focused on cross-cutting issues – such as social mobility in opportunity areas.

Using research by academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, who in 2013 produced ‘the future of employment’ report, Reform said that websites and artificially intelligent chat bots will remove the need for over 90 per cent of Whitehall’s 154,000 administrators by 2030, saving £2.6 billion a year.

Sundorph said the DfE was included in this calculation: “This means 96 per cent of admin staff will become automated at DfE and its arm’s-length bodies – the Education Funding Agency, Standards and Testing Agency, and The National College for Teaching and Leadership.”

But Jon Richards, national secretary at Unison, said Reform’s proposal was an “ill thought out idea, based on an old-fashioned view of what ‘receptionists’ do”.

He told Schools Week: “Of course we should utilise technology to help support learning and ensure efficiency, but the idea that receptionists just sit there opening doors for visitors is frankly ridiculous.”

Reform’s report also suggests that technology trends will impact the school workforce.

Schools are the second biggest public workforce, costing £29.4 billion in 2014-15, 70.2 per cent of the total school budget. Only the NHS is bigger.

Louis Coiffait, head of education at Reform, said advancements in technology could reduce that spend while improving school services.

He told Schools Week: “These changes are already starting to happen, with many schools allowing visitors to sign in and out with tablet computers, rather than through a receptionist.

“Many of the 89,700 administrative and reception roles currently in schools will soon be automated, we’re already seeing how new apps help communicate with parents and handle appointments.

“Teachers can also use smarter MIS systems to analyse data and inform their decisions, which can help to save time, allowing them to focus on the key things only they can do – like teach.”

However Richards said receptionist are “part of multidisciplinary teams do a range of jobs” and could not simply be replaced by machines.

“Reform see support staff as an easy target and frankly they should do their homework,” he added.

Alexander Hitchcock, report co-author, said that such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively.

“But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable,” he added.

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