Consider our new toilets....

29th June 2001 at 01:00
...For a while the children were in awe of the newly painted walls and nobody wrote 'bum' on them

Many primary schools are housed in elderly Victorian buildings, and for somebody used to a modern, well-equipped office, the conditions we work in must seem primitive. The trouble is, schools are filled with little things called children, and updating ancient facilities doesn't always guarantee improvement.

Consider our new toilets, fitted a while ago after repeated pleadings for a small slice of the local education authority buildings improvement cake. For a while, the children were in awe of the newly painted walls and nobody wrote "bum" on them. There were shiny chromium taps that just needed a gentle push before they cleverly turned themselves off, banishing the previous problem of water wastage when children left taps running. There were brand new pans and lovely clean cubicles. Everybody was happy - the cleaners especially so.

The euphoria didn't last long. The plungers on the taps still went down quite well, but refused to come up, often sticking in the full-flow position. As the new basins were smaller, a child could achieve a spectacular flood very quickly, by thrusting a bit of tissue into the plughole. More fun was to be had with the new toilet door locks, supposedly designed to work simply and easily. It wasn't long before somebody found that a pencil point would jam the locks from the outside, causing considerable anxiety to the poor soul trapped within. Fortunately, the toilets weren't too far away from the office and the howls of anguish quickly brought the nearest adult or child to the rescue, but it struck me that even the lowliest secondary technology lesson could have designed something better. Once again, our trusty premises officer had to think his way around that, as well as gluing the rubber collars to the back of the ceramic pans, because the toilet physicists had found that easing the rubber right back caused surprise to the next occupant, as he flushed and found himself ankle deep in water.

However new and high-tech an improvement is, children will always find a way to do something they shouldn't with it. Even a simple device such as a switch. When we had our old, unsafe lighting system removed, new switches were put at the top and bottom of the staircases in our three-decker building. Previously, the switches were operated by key, and the lights turned on by the premises officer at the beginning and end of the day. When they were replaced by ordinary two-way switches, the naughtier element among our older children realised there was fun to be had at the end of a winter's day by waiting until home-goers were halfway down the staircase and then plunging it into darkness. It wasn't easy to catch the culprits; if I nipped up the other staircase and moved silently and swiftly along the top corridor like the phantom, the naughties had already shot to the bottom of the staircase and done the same thing with the other switch. The problem was solved by threats in assembly and the distribution of staff near the switches at home time.

Playground "furniture", such as water fountains, can be a nightmare. Ours are ancient and don't get heavily used in the winter, but in the summer there's a perpetual queue, and the nozzles often become slack. With deft manipulation, it is possible to spray the entire queue lightly or virtually drown the person standing directly behind. Some children become so adept at it, they can soak a shirt at 15 paces and then apologise innocently to a less experienced teacher on duty, swearing blindly they had no idea it was going to do that, Sir.

When we had a mains burst in the playground, a team of plumbers dug more trenches than at Ypres in the First World War, and the opportunities were rife. Health and safety paramount, the workmen surrounded their trenches with netting, but the children devised all sorts of fun-filled activities, such as seeing how many tennis balls could be landed in the trench before the plumber leapt screaming over the netting, or seeing what the plumber said after being asked 20 times if he'd like a thumb to plug the leak until he'd fixed it, because they'd heard a story about that.

Our windows are about to be refurbished and we'll have scaffolding all round the school. I shudder to think of the possibilities.

* See You and Your Job, page 25Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, Camberwell, London.

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