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The key to efficiency

When I was a class teacher, my classroom was always organised and efficient. Everything had a place. Since children aren't the tidiest of creatures, I found that piles of junk could quickly accumulate and grow out of control, so that tidying up on a Friday afternoon was like trying to cope with the contents of the local tip. Far better to keep it tidy every day.

As a headteacher, keeping my room tidy is much easier because it's never full of children. But as retirement looms, I have been working through my cabinets, cupboards and shelves, deciding what should go and what should stay for the new head. And it was all going exceptionally well until last Friday, when Simon wasn't collected after school.

This is a regular occurrence and Simon is well known to social services. Simon's parents don't live together. His mother had gone for a holiday in Jamaica, his father couldn't be contacted and his older sisters had switched their mobiles off so that Dad couldn't ring to demand that they fetch Simon. To cap it all, Simon isn't a barrel of fun in the office after a long, hard day.

What to do? After an hour of frustration we decided to notify social services because this had happened so often, but first we needed to open the filing cabinet in my room to find the phone number of the family's social worker. I turned to the key cabinet on my wall and realised with horror that the key wasn't there. And I knew why.

In my enthusiasm for getting rid of the unwanted junk in my room, I had thrown out a pile of keys I hadn't touched for decades and stupidly thrown out the filing cabinet key as well. It looked as if it was going to be a large screwdriver and hammer job. And this cabinet would be a bugger to open because it contained sensitive material and was reinforced.

Then Secretary Sandra had one of her inspirational flashes, realising that if I had thrown the keys in my waste basket they would now be in one of the black plastic bags in the playground rubbish bins. The only downside was that the rubbish bins were big and deep, and by Friday night each one contains at least 20 black sacks. "I'll give the cleaner a ring," she said. "She's bound to remember which bin she threw your rubbish bag in. At least that will narrow things down."

Unfortunately, the cleaner couldn't narrow it down that far. Yes, it was in one of three bins, but she couldn't guarantee which one. Meanwhile, Simon had flicked through most of the story books on the table outside my room, drawn dozens of pictures on bits of my headed notepaper and kicked a football he'd found in a corner of Sandra's room, knocking a pile of folders off her table.

Then it was my turn to have a flash of inspiration. I had thrown some old school milk packets in the rubbish bag, and to stop them leaking I had sealed the bag with masking tape. All we had to do was shine a torch in the bins and locate the taped bag. Gathering gloves and torches, we stood on chairs, peered into the bins, shuffled the bags around a bit ... and there it was. Hunting through the mass of junk and leaking milk wasn't fun, but at least we recovered the keys.

We'd only been back upstairs for two minutes when the phone rang. "I'm sorry to trouble you," said a polite teenage voice, "but is my little brother still in school?"

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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