Semantically, Caregiving and Caretaking are diametrically opposite – one gives care and one takes it – but in a school setting it’s the object of the care that differs. Caregivers work with children, caretakers work with objects and buildings, or so the theory goes. But the caretakers I’ve come across in my time care deeply about their roles, their schools and everyone in them. Here’s to them.
A very wise headteacher once told me that if you really want to know a school, spend a day in the site office. He was right – one way or another you’ll see humanity in all its forms pass through it, along with an awful lot of other stuff. From the grumpy teacher who’s left their ID badge at home to the deputy head who’s locked their keys in their office and the random hedgehog that Year 7 found on the footpath – all of these will find their way to the hub of activity that is the school’s engine room.
One of the many things I love about site staff is their stoicism in the face of change. Every new government initiative, every new SLT-led drive, every assembly, every chair, every parents’ evening, every U-turn and every U-bend has at some point found itself passing through the site team’s domain. And while they might grumble from time to time (OK, for some it’s a fair amount of the time), they will just get on with whatever needs getting on with.
They don’t mind that D16 has changed its purpose from being a Diploma room to an Extended Schools room, a School Sports Co-ordinator’s room, an EBacc room and now a Pupil Premium room. To them, it’s just D16, the one at the end by Maths, with the dodgy radiator.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not adaptable; I have very fond memories of discussions on how to arrange the hall chairs into the shape of a dragon for the head’s new assembly idea, how to pick the perfect fire alarm tone (a whooping wee-yah works best) or how to get an eight-foot stone Buddha off the back of a lorry without a forklift.
While there might not always be a will, there is always a way. Site teams can and do fix anything.
The different tribes
There are various forms of site team – some travel in packs of three, some operate a conjoined-twin system and others (the most effective ones) a pincer technique, setting off to sweep the terrain like a military machine, arriving back at HQ at spot-on tea-break time.
But once you pass the test (and, new SBMs and heads, they will test you, whether you realise it or not), you’ve been initiated into the family and you’re in for life.
The site team Circle of Trust is powerful magic. There are many, many stupid things that I have done that only my site teams know about and, while they might rib me endlessly about them, I know that my embarrassing secrets and professional indiscretions are safe with them.
That goes both ways, of course: the accidental sounding of the fire alarm that was set off by “someone” testing a paint aerosol under the smoke detector, the golf-buggy lap trials around the school in the summer holidays, the ambulance call-out that revealed a decidedly undead evening caretaker asleep in the staffroom.
And then there’s the grapevine. Oh goodness, the grapevine. Forget the staffroom gossip, the juicy stuff is heard in the site office. You may not realise it, but they know whose car stays in the car park on a Friday night, who leaves with whom, who sneaks back to collect their car, bleary-eyed, in the same clothes on Saturday morning.
They see all. They even know about the secret liaisons in the archive room, the sneaky fag breaks behind the PE store and the names of every staff member who slopes off early when they have an end-of-day free period.
Caretaking teams also have hearts of gold. They will leave no stone unturned in the hunt for a missing piece of coursework, they’ll wait up all night for news of a missing student, they’ll have collections for sick colleagues and they’ll turn up on snow days to clear the paths ready for the next day even though everyone else gets a day off.
It’s not about overtime – really, it isn’t. It’s about caring deeply about keeping people safe. So value your site team. They don’t need much, just a thank-you, a mention in the newsletter or a personal visit every now and then.
In the world of the blocked toilet and the vomit clean-up call, a complimentary bacon roll or a donated packet of Hobnobs can go a very long way.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite “site” moments. A few years ago we built a concert hall with a seating balcony, which had a low glass wall with a gate in, which needed a small warning sign to tell users to keep it locked when not in use.
We ordered the sign, waiting patiently for it to arrive. Only one problem: the sign manufacturers had made it up in centimetres instead of millimetres. The memory of the gargantuan monoliths that arrived have kept me smiling through many a dark day ever since.
So bless you, site teams everywhere. You really are the beating heart of our schools, without whom, well, we’d all be sat in the car park, waiting for someone to unlock.
Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at Varndean School. She tweets at @sbm365.