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Something in the hair

Janice Bibby gains golden highlights in the cause of staffroom improvement.

So how did I, the head of a medium-sized primary school, spend the first Saturday in February? Relaxing in the bosom of my family perhaps or having my hair done? No. And what was my caretaker doing that day? Taking his wife shopping, mentally preparing himself for the ScotlandItaly rugby international (he's a Scot)? Wrong.

What about two of my classroom assistants? One certainly was in the bosom of her family (well, most of it anyway) because she brought her two little boys with her.

Four members of the staff plus one spouse? I expect you've worked it out by now. We were all in school working. Ofsted looming? No, we haven't had that second letter yet. Beavering away on the latest initiative to raise standards? Not even close.

We were painting a staffroom that has not been decorated within living memory. In some ways it is a shame the room couldn't be preserved in all its tattiness as a fine example of 20th-century working conditions for people employed in schools.

We could even have charged school parties to visit - except most schools have their own and would be unlikely to want the bother of organising a trip to see ours, what with booking a coach, sending out letters to parents, making lunch arrangements and so on. Anyway, we do not have the space to keep ours in its original condition.

It was an interesting coincidence, therefore, to read Melissa Coulthard's article in TES Friday (February 4) about her research into the real reasons for teacher shortages and her conclusion that not only pay but also working conditions need to be seriously improved if good graduates are to be attracted into the profession.

It is not just staffrooms that need to be upgraded. We need other facilities - such as sufficient office space, cloakrooms and toilets. And not just for teachers, but for everyone who works in schools - as in our school, like many, support staff now outnumber teaching staff.

Take our offices. Please do take our offices and replace them with rooms big enough to sing the caretaker's cat and accommodate the three staff who share a room about one metre square - or so it seems to them when, come lunchtime, they have all been in there together for more than three hours. Still, until two years ago, they shared it with the sick children as there was no medical room before a previous caretaker converted a stock cupboard.

When the midday supervisors arrive for work, where do they put their coats? No cloakroom, only a toilet with two cubicles and a washbasin that can be used as long as you do not mind being hit in the back by the door if someone tries to come in while you are washing your hands.

This facility - which boasts not one window - serves almost 40 female staff. In fact, it seems the whole building has been designed by someone who's rejected the quaint idea that fresh air is good for you. His view (it has to be a man) is clearly that the cutting edge of 1970s planning involved circulating the same air around the building several times as an economy measure. It must have been an oversight that before reaching the staff toilet, the air first has to travel through the kitchen, bringing with it the cooking smells that in the right place and at the right time are so appetising.

What fun we had planning the staffroom of the future when we were first told that we were to receive a Standards Fund grant of just under pound;1,000 to improve facilities. But realism set in and more modest improvements - such as re-covering the chairs and buying new tables, matching crockery, a dishwasher and, maybe, a new fridge, as well as a few pots of paint - were the agreed priorities.

Unfortunately the money would not cover labour as well, hence the painting party. It is fortunate that we have been promised more money next year - we need to replace the carpet which now has paint on it as well as photocopier toner stains.

Ask me what colour the staffroom is now. See the golden highlights in my hair - no it's not the result of a trip to an expensive hairdresser, it's yellow paint.

Janice Bibby is head of a primary school in Surrey

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