Friday Hero

Six headteachers in nine years is some turnover at the top of a school.

That's been the experience for staff and pupils at St Mary's CE primary school in the London borough of Lewisham. The consensus is that without Sandra Arabaje, the administrative officer, St Mary's might not have survived its turbulent years.

The present head, Matthew Britt took, over in April 2004 and not a day has passed without him being grateful to Sandra, whom he's nominated for our flowers, champagne and chocolates. "She is fantastic; gentle, positive, calm and strong. However difficult things have been, I've always known that in the school office there's a warm welcome and a listening ear; nobody is turned away. The parents trust Sandra and the children love her."

Sited on Lewisham High Street, the school serves a highly mobile population, with about a third on free meals. For families with needy children, Sandra's knowledge is invaluable; for newly arrived refugees, for instance, she has street maps to hand, contacts with the local translation service and with Lewisham's system for uniform grants and free meals. "That work is so important so the children feel settled and ready to learn," says Mr Britt.

Sandra came to the school 10 years ago and has recently undertaken a business management certificate with the National College for School Leadership - Mr Britt is a member of its governing council. "She's proving what she can achieve and will be part of the leadership group here, running the premises."

Working conditions at St Mary's are "dire" in parts, with some of the buildings dating back to 1833. The office is inside the old schoolmaster's house and last month a rat died under the floorboards - the rat man had managed to drive it away from the classroom block. "It stank but, instead of making a fuss, Sandra brought in natural remedies and some Jeyes fluid."

The smell has almost gone and Lewisham continues to press for a new school building.

"Sometimes I despair," says Mr Britt, "but Sandra helps me reflect on why things have happened and that helps me to make decisions."

Heroes are out there, but we need you to reveal them in all their glory.

Think of the person in your school - teacher, classroom assistant, governor, cook - who always goes the extra mile. Then tell us about them in a letter or email to Sarah Bayliss at the address above left. Go on, they deserve recognition. (Flowers kindly supplied by Marks Spencer)

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