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Renovation work has helped to cement us all

The neat and ordered world of school has suddenly been turned upside down. We are finally to become a 21st-century school, so there are builders all over the place.

Once we had plenty of space; now we are cribbed and confined while the renovations progress. There is dust everywhere. Strange fumes seep secretly through the building, bending reality. A science teacher tells me she has the sound of drilling echoing around her head. It is unlikely they will strike oil in my view. Another member of staff tells me that his feet are vibrating. I tell him it is probably his age.

Of course there are tensions. But closing the school while the work was carried out would have been an impossibility, so there is no other way: we must co-habit. The grinding and the drilling continue unchecked. Decades of dust are dislodged. After a day above a drill, an elegant and refined teacher suddenly looks like Miss Havisham emerging from a chalk pit. "I am so stressed I can no longer spell," she announces. "If I remember, I may have to write you my letter of resignation."

We have people teaching in an unfamiliar environment. Some have been complaining about their classrooms since they were appointed 30 years ago, but they must now relocate temporarily to places that are even less suitable.

Warnings are issued to the children in assembly. The younger ones are told that if they venture into parts of a building that was once their own, then they will surely die, horribly. A simple message, but largely effective. The older pupils are less easily intimidated. They find a way in and wander through an exciting festival of expensive power tools, claiming to be looking for the art department.

The builders view much of what we do with wide-eyed fascination since our world forever surprises them. The colony of feral cats in the roof space has already freaked out a couple of inspectors looking for asbestos. Their job was suddenly far more dangerous than they had ever imagined.

We must meet architects and surveyors. They speak a totally different language and do not understand our ways and our pressures. When we switch instantly from one thing to another, from strategic high-level planning to an unbalanced rant at Carl who had poked Kristal with a sharp pencil, it leaves them breathless. Their lives are much less volatile and unpredictable than ours. We smile. Welcome to our world. For us, this is normal.

Our fire evacuation procedures have to be revised, of course, since the layout of the school has changed. We now have a portable toilet for staff and one of the fire marshals has been designated to hammer on the door as a warning to those within in an emergency. It is sometimes hard to preserve your dignity in schools.

The builders are shocked by the down-to-earth attitudes of the girls in the office who, in their quieter, reflective moments use a language that is as industrial as their own. But they are eager to support us and accommodate the oddities and incidents that are the major part of our world.

We took a telephone call from the site foreman. "Better get over here with the accident book," he tells us. "One of your teachers has cut his finger off." A technology injury. "Don't want to be playing with a machine like that," he advises. "Dangerous things, tools - if you're not careful," as blood drips on to the floor from the severed digit.

He should know. The contractors need to be more careful with their tools. Some of our boys will take anything and find out much later what it is and what it does when they try to sell it to a rogue taxi driver.

But the builders are doing a fantastic job. They are very concerned that examinations are not compromised and will turn off their machines the instant we ask them to. It reminds us how seriously real people take our job. The builders are related to many of the children and they deal with some of the challenges they present quite skilfully. They have been good to have around, a warming injection of the real world into our insular school.

I am sure the novelty will begin to fade soon enough. But the children can see their surroundings being transformed and are excited by the future. At last someone is prepared to invest in them, and in a community like ours, that is a truly significant gesture. The older pupils, who will have moved on long before the transformation is complete, are resentful. It isn't fair. Why them? Why not us?

We are entering a long tunnel. The work won't be finished for a while, but it will be worth it. I am sure of it. Our future is bright. But sometimes I wonder if the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel is in fact merely the reflection from the visor of a man with an arc welder.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head, Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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