Room with a broom

Teachers might be overworked, but at least they can get away at the end of a hard day. Unlike those multi-skilled guardians of the school premises and grounds. They have to stay put - it's in their contract. Stephanie Northen drops in on seven site officers to find out what it's like living next door to the job. Portraits by Duncan Kendal.

Gerry Betts dreams of a little bungalow by the sea. "I keep hoping they'll give me a huge pension and tell me to clear off," says the 59-year-old site officer. Unfortunately for Gerry, he's probably made himself too valuable to the staff and pupils at Netherhall lower school in Cambridge over the nine years he has worked there. The skills of this former bricklayer, who ran his own business for 10 years, are constantly in demand.

The school was built in 1959 - "If I touch anything it falls to bits," he says. And, thanks to the metric system, nothing new fits the old, including, he notes, little things like doors.

Gerry's own house is "nice and warm", a bungalow with three bedrooms and a flat roof, which makes it seem "like you're living in a drum when it rains". It also has a large garden, which "they use to justify the astronomical rent". (Gerry is not a keen gardener.) He says the local authority is a good landlord,"it's just that its idea of a fair rent is higher than mine".

Retirement is no problem, although Gerry says cheerfully that he'll be discarded like an "old rag". He and his wife already own a house in Cambridge, which they rent out. "I'll sell my house, make an enormous sum of money, buy a bungalow, dump the rest in the bank and live on the hog."

Gerry clearly has several soft spots for the school and its 750 pupils. "When they first come with their little maps they're frightened to death. I tell them to holler out 'Gerry' if they have any problems. I let them get away with more than teachers would."

He tries to instil a positive attitude. "I tell 'em, if they have a grievance against a teacher not to go and break something, because they ain't hurting nobody but me who has to clear it up." There is little, if any, vandalism.

Gerry is a golfing fanatic, and says his long lunch breaks are ideal for a round on a local course. He and his wife also enjoy touring. "You've got to get away when you can. You'd go mad. Every morning you draw back the curtains, and there's the blinking school."

"We're here to serve," says Gerry Betts's colleague, Brian Chadwick, 36-year-old site officer at Netherhall upper school. "I'm that way inclined. I like to help and fit in. I mean, we only do our little bit, but it's a very important role and I like providing a service for the school and the community."

Brian, whose background includes store-detective work and construction, says he has fitted in well. "It's a seven-day-a week job, but it's perfect really. I enjoy it very much."

Netherhall upper caters for 600 14 to 18-year-olds. "They're great," says Brian. "Mind you, you have to maintain a professional distance. After all, they're on a different wavelength, in a different world."

Most of the school is new, and Brian says the attractive brick-and-timber building with courtyards and plants is a tremendous facility. His only minor complaint is that graffiti, which the school suffers from occasionally, doesn't come off brick easily.

He pays a subsidised rent on his three-bedroom bungalow, where he lives with his wife and their three young children (they've got another on the way). The 1950s property was not included in the school rebuilding programme. "It could do with some money spent on it, but we're very happy and have a lovely garden, which is enclosed, and that's important. You can come in through the gate and shut things off."

Brian and his wife are Christians, and say their faith gives them strength. "After all, it's not just our children we're dealing with; there are 600 others. That said, almost all of them are very good."

His church actually meets at the school - presumably the site officer is only too happy to help them clear up afterwards.

Brian's efforts, and those of Gerry Betts at the lower school, are appreciated by Netherhall head Graham Silverthorne. "They are both great chaps," he says, "and I try hard to make sure they know their work is appreciated. We couldn't do without them."

Bob Wilson is a caretaker. "They don't pay me enough to be a site officer," he says, "and besides, the title caretaker does me fine." After a life working in heavy industry, Bob, now 60, developed rheumatoid arthritis and couldn't manage the work any more. Fifteen years ago, he took the caretaking job at Warndon infants' and junior school in Worcester, where he has been ever since.

He and his wife live in a 1960s three-bedroomed bungalow, which "seems a funny shape when you first look at it, but inside it's lovely and it has a big garden, which I enjoy".

Bob's green fingers have been useful. When he arrived, Warndon suffered badly from vandalism. Bob knew the damage was being done by ex-pupils who were coming back to cause trouble. "So I used to take the really naughty children to do the garden. We had no money to buy seats, so I bought some sand and gravel and got them mixing concrete. We made blocks that we fixed to the ground. Then we made timber seats to fix to them. I had the children drilling and screwing, and I knew they wouldn't come back and vandalise their own work." Now the school has "nice things" - seats and shady areas - and the nursery children's toys can be left out at night.

Bob adopted the same policy with flowers. The council used to spray the grounds with weedkiller. He stopped that, appealed to parents for flowers and got the children to plant them. Warndon has won the Worcester in Bloom competition twice, and now has virtually no vandalism. "We still get the odd troublemaker. If I find anyone in school, I go out with my two German shepherd dogs. We exercise them in the grounds and try to be very visible."

Bob knows to the day when he will have to retire. The bungalow will have to go. "I had to sign a right-to-buy disclaimer when I took the job, unfortunately." He and his wife pay rent, which used to be subsidised more than it is now. "The local authority put the rent up and didn't tell me for two years. I'm not complaining, mind, just stating a fact."

There are 850 pupils at Richard Churchman's school, and they should all be pretty fit. As grounds and estate manager, Richard oversees a team of 15 workers, who nurture, tend, and clip the 250 acres that belong to Christ's Hospital school, in Horsham, Sussex.

The independent boarding school has a total of 140 acres devoted to sport, including 25 winter games pitches, 13 cricket squares and at least 15 tennis courts; 50 acres are purely "decorative". Richard says: "I like to think of the place as a blend from the formal to the informal through to the very natural. We try to bear in mind the natural world in everything we do."

He certainly has the right cv for maintaining such extensive fields: before he started at Christ's Hospital 20 years ago, Richard, now 49, worked all around the United Kingdom telling people how to grow grass as a consultant with the Sports Turf Research Institute.

He and his wife, like many of Christ Hospital's academic staff, live on the estate. His house, formerly two cottages, was built in about 1850. Once part of a small pig farm, it now has four bedrooms, two receptions and a "big patch" of garden. The house belongs to the school and came as part of the package. But Richard and his wife have invested in property elsewhere should they decide to move on.

Christ's Hospital is unusual. Set up 450 years ago, it is run by a charitable foundation. Forty per cent of the children pay no fees and 85 per cent come from state primaries. "Most are charming, well presented and well spoken children," says Richard. "It's always a delight to help them, although I wouldn't pretend to know many by name."

Richard works a five-day week, although weekend sporting fixtures have to be accommodated. "It's not a 24-hour-a-day job," he says. "Not unless a tree falls down - and we work hard to make sure that doesn't happen." And he doesn't have to worry about maintaining the school buildings. That's the job of the steward. "I'm the mud and roses man."

Steel-framed windows, dead creatures and forgetful parents are routine challenges for Steve Otterwell, site manager at Christ Church primary, Bradford-on-Avon, for almost nine years.

The Wiltshire school was built 40 years ago, in a classic flat-roof style with metal windows. Steve, previously a carpenter-joiner, is unimpressed. "It's a very poor design," he says. "The felt roof has to be constantly replaced and the steel-framed windows are poor heat insulators and are in timber outer frames, which are constantly rotting and being bodged up."

There's asbestos everywhere, he says, although, obviously, it's all covered.

His own bungalow is in a similar style, although he says it's better quality. "The house comes with the job, so I don't have a large mortgage, but I do have to worry about the future. If I lose the job, I lose the house," says the 36-year-old. He recently installed double glazing. Not that this ensures him much peace. "Living on the premises is convenient, but can be a bind. Parents are always coming up at weekends, evenings and holidays for their kids' bits and pieces when it's my own time."

The children keep him busy too. "They're constantly climbing up on the roofs to get their balls down. Then there's clearing up after they've been sick. Not to mention picking up all the dead birds and things they've spotted in the hedges and fields."

But nature is not always unpleasant. "We've got beautiful grounds, so the children have woods, fields and lots of space to run. It's a really special school."

Steve is also a fireman, so he's constantly on alert and liable to dash off at any moment. And burnt-out buildings don't just go with firefighting. "The school was given a burnt-out shell of a Pratten building (a prefabricated classroom) that someone had gutted and nicked all the bits and pieces off. I stripped it all down and built it all up, did all the windows, put all the cladding in - the floor, the ceiling, the doors. So now there's a classroom named after me."

'It's not a 24-hour-a-day job, not unless a tree falls down - and we work hard to make sure that doesn't happen'

There are site managers who run around like the proverbial blue-bottomed flies, but Dave Bell is not one of them. "It's pretty good here," says the 49-year-old site manager of Milldown middle school in Blandford Forum, Dorset. "The majority of the pupils here are very good, and the staff always appreciate what I do.

"The cons are always being on call. Some caretakers spend their lives chasing their tails because staff want to come in all the time, but I basically work a normal day. Of course, occasionally I get students in the grounds who I have to kick off. If anything happens, it's up to me if I go out, but it's usually to my advantage to do so because if they cause damage I've got to repair it."

Not that fixing things bothers Dave. He enjoys the maintenance aspect of the job and recently helped refurbish the changing rooms. Otherwise he can be found doing anything from setting up a fax machine to, less pleasantly, cleaning up vomit, the curse of primary school site officers everywhere. "That's not my favourite bit."

Dave has worked at Milldown for almost four years, moving down with his wife from Weston-super-Mare. The flat-roofed 500-pupil school was built in 1959, but fortunately the roofs were replaced just before he started the job. "There's just ongoing maintenance now," he says, "no real problems."

His own house was built at the same time as the rest of the school, and he says it's an interesting building. "The ceilings slope inside, which gives you a funny feeling as you walk through it. You expect a room to stay the same height, but this one goes up at one end. Mind you, you do get used to it."

Dave says the best part of the job is having his work appreciated. "Whatever I do, the staff always thank me. And when I set up the video for one of England's World Cup matches, the number of students who walked past and thanked me was nice. That's the bit of the job I do like."

Trevor Hewitt has worked at Park high in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, for almost 45 years. First as a pupil, then as a decorator and, for the past 13 years, as site manager. Fortunately, he loves the place. Park high opened in 1934 and the original brick buildings with their pantiled roofs are still there, as are the quadrangles where 55-year-old Trevor played as a child.

The school is on the boundary of a large council estate. "Just like any part of the country, we have our good and bad," he says, "but I've never ever had any problem with the kids. They call me Trev. I tell them when they come in, 'I'll be your friend, I'll help you out, I'll do anything if you behave yourself. But if you get on the wrong side of meI'" Trevor is brimful of enthusiasm. He is a governor and serves on the health and safety committee. He also helped start up a community group to strengthen links between the school and the estate. "We want people to come in and enjoy the place."

When he first came to Park High, the boys asked him if they could play football in the evening. "I had to approach county - oh, the rigmarole. When the gates were locked, I used to let them come through my garden and I made them a proper 'field pass'." The local police presented the school with a couple of big football posts, and presented the site manager with a community award.

Trevor and his wife live in a 1970s bungalow full of animals right at the main gate. It's surrounded by a big hedge, which gives them some privacy. The rent is subsidised, but Trevor does any big repairs himself - whenever he has a moment.

"You're here 24 hours. You don't work 24 hours, but you can get called any time. I don't think many people realise what the job is really like. I'm not a person who walks round with a bunch of keys. That's an old fallacy. It's masses of paperwork. I've got two computers. There's contracts to look after, budgets to think of, there's the 20 cleaners. It's massive, but it's worthwhile. It's a big-satisfaction job."

'Some caretakers spend their lives chasing their tails because staff want to come in all the time, but I basically work a normal day'

Dave Bell 'I've got two computers. There's contracts to look after, budgets to think of, there's the 20 cleaners. It's massive, but it's worthwhile. It's a big-satisfaction job'

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you