Is this the happiest staffroom in Britain?

Most schools like to think they are one big, happy family, but staff at Walker technology college in Newcastle are close even by school standards - a quarter of teachers have been there for more than 20 years.

Over the decades best friendships have developed and romances have blossomed, resulting in two Walker marriages. Staff have helped each other during divorces and bereavements and celebrated happier times, holidaying together and acting as godparents to each others' children.

Fourteen have worked together for more than 25 years and seven for more than 30 - with many nearing retirement having never worked anywhere else.

Tony Broady, Walker's head, has cultivated one of the nation's friendliest staffrooms and prides himself on the fact that so few teachers leave, giving them presents when they reach 20, 25 and 30 years of service.

Promotions posts are advertised internally only, giving staff the chance to progress within the school, and training is paid for.

Dr Broady's Friday morning briefings are used not only to discuss school issues but also update staff on personal matters which may need them to rally round.

The jovial atmosphere in the staffroom is reflected on its noticeboard: there are dog-eared pictures of "unhealthy positions" adopted by teachers on the annual ski trip and of "merry" evenings attended by staff, ex-staff, former pupils and anyone else with a Walker link. There are flourishing staff soccer, golf and cricket teams, as well as hill walkers, skiers and quiz teams.

"You have got to be able to take a joke in the staffroom," said Dr Broady, who retires at Christmas. "But it is always well-meant. The staff here don't want to leave and love their work, which is nice to hear against the normal stories of dissatisfaction."

"It was my first job in 1972 and will be my last when I retire in four years' time," said Mick Kay, 56, who has taught history, English, German and French over the past 33 years. He has worked with more than 1,000 colleagues and says there are only two people he has not got on with.

When Mr Kay married for the second time, two years ago, his best man was a former pupil.

Steve McAnelly, 54, joined in 1974 but applied for a job elsewhere in 1976.

Luckily he didn't get it: "That was the best thing that didn't happen to me," he said. Paul Hilditch, a 54-year-old technology teacher, joined in 1978. In 1993 his wife died of cancer after a three-year illness. "The support I received from the school was just breathtaking," he said. "Losing Tony will be a bit like losing the leader of the pack."

Before Dr Broady retires he will have to undergo his ritual festive humiliation. Over the years he has faced gunge tanks, knife throwers, and hypnotists, all devised by Bill Allsopp, the DT teacher dubbed "The Great Fiasco", who has taught at Walker since 1974. This year there is talk of custard pies and Dr Broady made sure he packed a change of clothes for his farewell lunch.

When Mr Allsopp's wife also died of cancer, colleagues rallied round and took over his duties. "Even though the funeral was a school day, there were lots of staff there - I have never forgotten it," he said.

Dr Broady, a former chemistry teacher, and his team have turned Walker from Newcastle's worst-performing school to its best. In 1990 just 1 per cent of pupils got five Cs or better at GCSE and last year that had risen to 64 per cent. "Everyone honestly feels they are making a difference," he said.

"We are a particularly sociable lot and not afraid to say we love the job - the holidays, the pensions, everything. It is going to be quite traumatic to leave."


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