FORGET about whole school inspections - if you really want to find out how a school is performing all you have to do is check out its staffroom. According to many educators, the overall view of the school that you'll obtain from this vantage point will be as good as, if not better, than anything gained by sending in a whole team of inspectors.
"The whole culture and ethos of a school and the efficiency of its management is immediately obvious when you enter a staffroom," says one secondlevel principal.
"You know immediately whether the school is well run, whether its attitude to its students is supportive and encouraging, and whether the teachers enjoy and are on top of their jobs."
Tell tale signs of poor management include dingy staffrooms where the notices are out off date, the paint is peeling, dirty coffee cups are left unwashed and the carpets are dirty, this principal says.
In some staffrooms the atmosphere is tense and frosty. "I used to teach in a school where there were three groups in the staffroom that didn't speak to each other and if you spoke to one group, the other groups wouldn't speak to you, confides a second level teacher in Co Dublin.
"I know of a three teacher school where the principal doesn't speak to the other two teachers and they communicate by notes which are passed by the pupils," says a rural teacher.
School discipline is a highly contentious and divisive subject in many staffrooms, according to one teacher. Occasionally, staffroom relationships become so acrimonious they end up in the law courts.
Many teachers can recall staffrooms where certain chairs are the sole preserve of particular members of staff, or where people have their own mugs which newcomers use at their peril. "I've often arrived in a new staffroom only to be warned against sitting in certain seats," says a second level supply teacher.
"In some staffrooms there's a whole unwritten list of rules and they can be minefields for new teachers," she adds. It's easy to imagine that such schools are hierarchical, authoritarian and adopt strict disciplinary codes.
Meanwhile, the likelihood is that if teaching staff are open and welcoming to newcomers - particularly to H.Dip students and part time teachers - their attitudes towards their students will be equally positive.
It's hard to believe that at the end of the 20th century there are staffrooms in this country where H.Dip students are prevented from sitting with the regular teaching staff. But teachers report that this is the case. Similarly in some schools, new and part time teachers receive no formal introductions to their colleagues.
"Very often you're thrown in at the deep end - the principal gives you your timetable and points you in the direction of the staffroom - and that's it," says Katherine (not her real name) who has spent seven years as a part time teacher in a variety of second level schools.
"In some staffrooms teachers are very unwelcoming to part time teachers of whom there are very many nowadays. Nobody makes an effort to talk to you or asks you how it's going. It makes the job much more difficult."
"I've been teaching for more than 30 years in both VEC and voluntary sector schools," says Fergal, a second level teacher. "When I started, staffrooms were small, with few teachers. There was a great intimacy about staffrooms in those days and the older teachers were very supportive of newcomers. We weren't as unionised then and people gave more to their students, to the school and to each other."
AMIDST all this talk about staffrooms though, it's important to remember that they are merely microcosms of our society - walk into any workplace and you'll almost certainly discover similar occurrences. And as in offices, shops and factories up and down the country, some staffrooms are more sociable than others.
"I've found that the mixed staffrooms are the liveliest - people behave differently when members of the opposite sex are about and there's greater camaraderie. In single sex schools there's less after school socialising among the staff," says Katherine.
"I've taught in both fee paying and disadvantaged schools. Maybe I was lucky, but in my experience teachers communicate and co operate with each other far more in disadvantaged schools than they do in private schools probably because the problems they face are greater."
However, according to seasoned observers, it is good management that makes good staffrooms and when a staffroom is good it is so largely because of the efforts of the school principal and the board of management.
"A staffroom should be a place where ideas are flowing, where there's fun and activity. It's easy for a young staffroom to be full of verve, but the trick is to keep a middle aged staffroom stimulated," says Pat O'Connor who is headmaster of St Enda's Community School, Limerick. "Good staffrooms just don't happen - like love they have to be worked at."
Nowadays, a major role of the school principal is people management. It's inevitable that in large staffrooms containing 60 or 70 teachers groups of like minded people will form. Whether these groups remain open, friendly and positive or become divisive cliques, is largely up to the principal.
"The job of the principal is to note the different groups and bring them all along," observes Fergal. "Jealousies can surface at staff meetings. Sometimes someone will put forward a contentious motion for debate - but an effective principal will deal with this before the meeting and ensure that the motion either won't appear or will do so in a diluted form."