I'm the NQT, who are you?

14th January 2000 at 00:00
You've landed your first job, now you're expected to act without a safety net. Well, almost. Frankie Searle introduces ancillary staff - the people who keep the show on the road.


The candidate: Jovial person, often heading towards retirement and always attached to an enormous bunch of keys.

The job: While you are at home dozing over your cornflakes, the caretaker is opening up, stoking the boiler and binning any detritus the previous night's yobs have left behind.

The caretaker controls the janitorial supplies, scales ladders and changes light bulbs. He (or she) deals with minor maintenance problems, but also runs a small army of tradespeople to stop the place falling apart.

Caretakers are talented people, often harbouring degrees or novels. They willingly turn their hand to most things, from being the sports day scorekeeper to trimming the Christmas tree. The caretaker opens up again for the evening lettings, then secures the building afterwards, but even after the night classes have finished he is still on standby. If the burglar alarm goes off, he and his labrador will race round to deal with a group of (usually) older pupils having a party on the premises. He knows all the pupils by name and from a distance (mainly due to these nocturnal encounters).

The job is 100 times more difficult in winter, scooping up the autumn leaves, spreading salt, shovelling snow. He must also balance the needs of the (chilly) staff against a rapidly disappearing heating budget. Often, with older systems, the central heating's first run will result in ruptured pipes and a flooding.

Plus: The hours are flexible and the caretaker always has a chunk of free time during the day. He lives on-site, so getting to work is quick and cheap.

Minus: The hours are a bind, with anti-social elements during the evenings and weekends. Living on-site, he can never escape from work completely. All the children know where he lives.

Help to an NQT: The caretaker has the power to turn the central heating thermostat up (or down), controls the issue of plastic bin liners and can glue the leg back on your chair if you ask nicely.

Helping the caretaker: Janitors don't like kids deliberately blocking the loos by stuffing whole toilet rolls down the pan. Make strenuous efforts to identify the culprit, then hang, draw and quarter them. If the caretaker is off duty, don't cover fresh vomit with a couple of paper towels. It sets like concrete in no time.


(NNEB National Nursery Examination Board) The candidate: Youthful, cheery person in jazzy jumpers, often toting a bag bursting with glue and bits of fur fabric.

The job: You may not be alone in the classroom, but could have a friendly nursery nurse to act as your assistant. With teachers of early years children, it is recognised that these very young bodies will need lots of help with the basics - tying shoe laces, keeping them in the classroom and not going walkabout.

The first time one of your EY charges lies down and has a full-blown temper tantrum, you'll be relieved there's an NNEB to supervise the writhing form on the floor, so you can devote yourself to the more onerous task of managing the rest of the class.

Gluing, cutting and painting are all activities which key stage 1 children love. However, their manual dexterity is inversely proportional to their enthusiasm for the task in hand.

Nursery nurses are used to being cordoned off with small batches of children, wrapping them in old shirts and producing works of art from a handful of straws, a ball of string and a plastic pop bottle. You are going to rely heavily on the NNEB if you want to avoid having parents in complaining about paint spattered uniform or "she didn't have a haircut like that when she went to school this morning".

The nursery nurse is at the beck and call of the entire school to deal with injuries and illnesses. She will hose down the decks after a nasty bout of kiddie diarrhoea and can tell the difference between genuine malaise and "spelling test fever".

NNEBs filter further up primary schools, helping with literacy and numeracy hours (and any other grand schemes or initiatives). They also support statemented children, becoming pseudo "minders" right through secondary school as well. If you have a special needs child in your class, you'll soon know what a lifesaver the nursery nurse is.

Plus: She can enjoy working with children without having the accountability. There's no marking or lessons to prepare.

Minus: The nursery nurse must always follow the schedule and ideas of the class teacher. If she is supporting several classes in the same year, her work can become repetitive. Cutting out bits to make, say, 94 Mother's Day cards, may feel like working on an assembly line.

Help to an NQT: The NNEB can show you where everything is kept, set up classroom and corridor displays, pass on gossip and read the class a story, giving you the chance to catch up on your paperwork.

Helping the nursery nurse: The NNEB has a nomadic existence, flitting from one classroom to the next, and may not have a corner to call her own. Ransack your store cupboard and clear half a shelf so she can arrange her bits and pieces, and she will love you.


The candidate: Adaptable, resourceful, multi-skilled person. A school secretary is totally unflappable, whatever a normal working day throws at her.

The job: Really a multitude of jobs gathered together under one heading. A school secretary is receptionist, typist, accounts clerk, messenger, switchboard operator and much more besides. She will simultaneously answer the telephone, deal with reception enquiries and type a letter with her left foot. She'll soothe angry parents who have come in to hit you or the headteacher. She orders supplies of everything from rubbers to reading schemes, paper to PE equipment. In your absence, she will even order another (supply) teacher.

As she braves periodic glances at the budget, she will take economy measures, including bulk buying. It is cheaper to buy a pallet of paper rather than lots of smaller amounts. This results in the stock cupboard bursting at the seams and an impromptu stationery annexe being set up in the ladies' loo.

Technology has had a great impact. Even 10 years ago, the secretary had nothing more technologically demanding than an electric typewriter and a kettle. Now there's the computer, printer, fax, remote door entry system, CCTV, photocopier, OMR (optical mark reader) and conferencing facilities.

As attendance registers are moving towards automation, the school secretary will inevitably control the higher parts of the system. She'll keep the information up to date and send regular reports back to staff. The system of bar coding the kids sounds like an excellent idea - if only the little darlings could be trusted.

She takes money for trips, phone calls, the tuck shop, and keeps them in separate pots in the safe. You might think it's a waste of time being so particular - she probably does too.

The secretary types reports, policies and minutes. She sorts the post, does the filing and often has access to all manner of confidential information. But don't ask, her lips are sealed.

Plus: A school office presents a varied and challenging job where anything can happen.

Minus: Being first in the firing line for disaffected parents or grumpy delivery men who check they've got the right school after they've unloaded their lorry. The constant interruptions from staff, parents, children and the telephone means, at times, nothing seems to get done.

Help to an NQT: She will help sort out your dinner registers, forward messages and show you how the photocopier works, if you act helpless enough.

Helping the secretary: Don't drop a 40-page curriculum policy in her tray and ask her to type it up when she has "five minutes". Never leave your paperwork lying around in the office - you will never see it again.


The candidate: Battle-scarred and hoarse, these ladiesgents spend half the year enveloped in 10 layers of clothing to combat the cold. A whistle and note pad dangle from their top pockets.

The job: Come the middle of the day, everyone needs a break. Children burst on to the playground en masse, while their teachers crawl off to the staffroom to wilt. Several hundred children need to be supervised outside, then shepherded into the hall to be fed. Dinner ladies have this unenviable task.

Broadly, there are two types of lunchtimers: a) Kitchen staff who cook and serve meals, only to witness key stage 1 returning half their food to the slop bucket and Years 5 and 6 flicking the stuff around. The catering staff at least have some protection on the far side of the serving hatch.

b) Lunchtime supervisors are led by the lunchtime superintendent, and must patrol the dinner hall. They help the tinies open their pots of yoghurt, deal with spills and tread a fine line between those parents who demand plates scraped clean and others who abhor any form of mealtime coercion.

On the playground, Year 1 might invite their dinner lady to join in their games, between bouts of her bending double to tie shoelaces and unjam zips. Dinner ladies supervising older children must break up fights, dodge flying footballs and deal with cheeky behaviour kids wouldn't dare direct at a teacher.

Dinner ladies mop up bloodied noses and grazed knees, produce fresh clothing for youngsters who've got wetmuddy and try to track down missing coats, bags and pet aliens. They must chase after escapees and keep a lid on vendettas which have been passed down through successive generations of siblings in school.

Plus: No formal qualifications are needed. It is a pleasant job when the sun is shining and the kids are behaving. There is time to talk to the children in a relaxed way without being perceived as an authority figure.

Minus: It is a struggle when the children are playing up or it's the fourth wet dinnertime on the trot. One hour can last a very long time and it is inconveniently set right in the middle of the day.

Help to an NQT: Dinner ladies provide a very welcome break for the teaching staff. They try to seat children near friends or siblings if requested, and will keep an eye on miscreants.

Helping the dinner ladies: Listen attentively to them at the lunch debriefing (you will get one) and act as necessary. Tell the dinner lady she's doing a marvellous job. If necessary, check through the behaviour policy and, with the head's blessing, pass on some behaviour management tips.


The candidate: Energetic young mums in leggings or larger-than-life grannies clutching their clipboards like a badge of office.

The job: Parent helpers are sometimes an overlooked resource in the primary school classroom, and work in one of two ways. They can support whatever you have planned for the lesson. They may take a small group to the library and forage for information, assist with a knittingacupuncture class, or they could sit in a corridor wedged between the cleaners' cupboard and boxes of unpacked deliveries.

PHs can be an extra pair of hands constructing giant floor-to-ceiling collages, or they can play safety officer during the Year 5 fruit salad chopping frenzy.

Some forward thinking schools offer their parent helpers IT training. At the end of a six-week course, they can all use the "paint" programme to draw a wobbly house in a hallucinogenic garden. With luck and application, they can pass their new skills on to the children, if ever they manage to bypass the gremlins and log-on.

The other way these volunteers can help is for you to utilise the variety of skills they have. Often highly trained personnel in a previous life (before they had children), they might be persuaded to give a talk. You will broaden your own horizons and it could spin off into other lessons.

Having a parent helper in the same class as their child can have unexpected consequences. While the tinies glow with pride ("that's my mum"), older hoodlums may be caught between carrying on with their normal (disruptive) classroom persona and the prospect of repercussions from home. You could have a reformed character on your hands.

Generally, parent helpers are a diverse group ranging from young trendy things keen for a break from the domestic grind to septuagenarian grandparents in awe of teachers and technology, but wonderful with the kids.

Plus: PHs come at times to suit themselves. It counts as work experience and can enhance a CV or references. Occasionally, it may lead directly to employment.

Minus: No pay. It's also a shock for parent helpers to find out just how noisy a group of children can be.

Help to an NQT: Culture your parent helper circle, as you will need them for your annual trip to Wobbly Castle. With a bit of thought, you can dilute the awkward kids appropriately: non-stop chatterbox girl with granny; potential absconder with your part-time prison warder (or equivalent); the nose-picker with laid-back parent, and so on.

Helping the parent helpers: Show lots of appreciation. Warn them if it's a messy activity, so they don't come in their Versace. Vary their tasks, share a coffee at break time and they'll be loyal supporters.

There is one more support worker who sometimes comes in to classrooms. Dedicated and determined, they appreciate the paperwork involved, understand teaching methods and will be keen to off-load much of the responsibility from your shoulders. They can keep the class in order and will help out all day every day for weeks on end.

When you mentor a student on teaching practice, you'll know you've left the NQT status behind and really are a fully-fledged teacher.

Frankie Searle is a school secretary in the Midlands. She writes under a pseudonym

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today