A headteacher who became obsessed with how often the loos flushed

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Cornwall's schools have cut electricity and water bills thanks to a man who hates waste and loves 'spies', writes Mark Jackson

For years David Blackford, a Cornish headteacher, has been persuading his colleagues to put spies in their school lavatories. The purpose is not to catch out furtive smokers or graffiti wits but to save money.

The spies - occupancy sensors that detect when someone enters - eliminate the need for the constant routine flushing of urinals, which wastes a lot of water. They are part of the energy management measures which have so far saved Cornwall's schools about Pounds 1 million. That could translate into a saving of as much as a fifth of the yearly fuel and water bill.

Mr Blackford's key role in the county's energy-saving drive is lauded in a Department of Environment technical bulletin. He is almost certainly the only teacher ever to have earned this distinction.

He was head of the medium-sized comprehensive in St Ives in the mid Eighties when he first became interested in the possibility of using a state-of-the-art computerized control systems to cut heating and lighting costs. That was before the days of local managment of schools, and it was only when a newly-established council working party agreed to use his school for a pilot installation that he was able to go ahead.

So successful was the building energy management system (BEMS), cutting the school's bills by Pounds 3,500 in the first year and paying for itself within three years, that the education department set Mr Blackford to work full time persuading the rest of the county's heads of its benefits. He toured schools, briefing management and governors and training staff.

Mr Blackford was well-known to most of his colleagues, both as a long-serving head and a National Association of Head Teachers council member. "They were prepared to hear about my own experience and to trust what I was telling them," he says. "There are enormous advantages in using a head in this kind of role." But it was only after the start of LMS, when heads were faced with meeting costs out of their school's budget, that their interest quickened. As well as cutting bills, the systems can provide a lot of management information.

The energy management systems, all supplied by a specialist company which tailors them to the county's requirements, are run by complex software detailing when heating is turned on and off in each room, varying it for the season, day of the week, time of day, holidays, and other patterns of use as well as temperature. Occupancy sensors turn off the lights when rooms are empty.

The programme is rewrittem once a year, but heads can override it if they want part of the building kept warm for, say, a parents' meeting. In the bigger secondaries the caretaker or some other specially trained staff member is in charge of the controls, but the systems installed in small schools are run by country hall.

Each of the small school computers telephones a county hall centre automatically at intervals and reports a stream of electronic data. Engineers monitor the system and carry out any adjustments that heads request.

Every school in Cornwall, apart from a few which are unsuitable, now has such a system. All of them, however, have sensors in their loos - which, says county energy management engineer Denis Mattos, provide the most impressive payback, often paying for themselves in as little as six months. One reason for their popularity is that schools do not have to pay for them: the local authority is responsible for the plumbing.

With the programme complete, Mr Blackford, still officially a headteacher, has now moved to a job working with social services on the problems of excluded pupils. Excited as he is by this new career change, he admits that he often has dreams about taking assembly.

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