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My fuse has well and truly blown

Being a headteacher has caused me to have sleepless nights on only three occasions. The first was when our education authority was experiencing problems and schools were told they would need to handle their own payrolls in future. Since my accounting skills equal my understanding of Sanskrit, and payroll expertise for schools was rare in those days, this was a frightening scenario. The second occurred when my school experienced a nastily aggressive Ofsted inspection, and I knew I had to take a stand and battle with the inspectors. And the third occasion was just recently ...

It started when the snow was thick on the ground and premises officer Scott found the boilers had stopped working because a fuse had melted. This is always a problem because it means we have to close the school. Parents don't understand the notion of a fuse melting. They think I should be able to nip into Homebase, pick up a packet of 13 amp fuses and get everything fixed before their offspring arrive. They don't appreciate that our boilers are ancient, with massive and hard-to-source fuses. Fortunately, we only closed for a day because the engineer arrived promptly, swapped some fuses around and got things working again quickly.

A fortnight later the boilers broke down again. Ever keen to save money, Scott had been reading all the manuals and managed to fix things with a pair of pliers and a piece of thick wire. Once again, we only closed for a day. I sighed with relief - spring wasn't far away and maybe we could just scrape through.

And then they broke down for a third time. Scott couldn't fix it and he took me into the boiler room to show me where he thought the fault lay. I rarely visit this room, but when I do I'm reminded of a scene in Terry Gilliam's futuristic film Brazil, where Robert De Niro opens a cavity wall to reveal a maze of gurgling, intricate plumbing and sets about trying to locate a fault. There was nothing for it - the engineer would have to visit yet again. Another #163;100 call-out fee, plus VAT, before he did even anything.

This time he shook his head, pursed his lips and poked the system's innards. "Can't repair it," he said. "The ancilliary retro-driven flange didgery-doo unit has packed up. Thing is, you see, your boilers were built in the reign of Henry II. You're probably looking at a new system. And then, of course, you might have asbestos once we start removing pipes. Take a few months, I reckon."

I was numbed by the news. What would we do? The children couldn't learn in a freezing building. We couldn't provide meals because there would be no hot water. We couldn't afford a new system and we would have to tap the authority for a massive loan. We would probably have to set up temporary home in a local school that had been closed. The upheaval didn't bear thinking about.

I sent a brief note to the staff and went home that day feeling thoroughly dejected. There were so many events we had planned, too. Closing the school meant we would have to cancel all of them. I arrived at school the next day ready to notify all the parents that we were closing yet again.

And then, joy of joys, Scott hurried over to tell me the engineer had discovered a small firm still making the parts for ancient systems. It would cost a bob or two, but he could fit one that afternoon if we signed on the dotted line.

Frankly, just to put my two-day ordeal behind me, I think I would have paid for the part even if it had cost five grand.

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

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