It's a dirty business

1st November 2013 at 00:00

It's ironic that school mission statements are full of words like "inclusion" and "equality", because while they may reflect our attitude to the students, they don't mirror the way we treat some staff. School employees are divided into the haves, who are given classrooms and opportunities for continuing professional development, and the have-nots, who get rubber gloves and a vast supply of bin liners.

Cleaning staff and teaching staff belong to two distinct worlds. One is the high-profile world of education, which is scrutinised, progressed and valued; the other is a twilight world of hard labour that is largely hidden from view. Even at whole-school gatherings, there's never a tabard in sight. That's because cleaners scuttle around like the Borrowers, only coming out when the teachers have gone home.

This is presumably so that we don't ask them to scrub walls, shift desks or lug enormous boxes of recycling paper all the way round to the outside bins in the pouring rain. When it comes to classroom tidiness, there's no scope for compassion.

Occasionally, driving late into school, you might pass a pair of cleaners walking home. Or sometimes you overlap at night. You sit at your desk, marking, the distant drone of their vacuuming in the background. Suddenly a cleaner walks in. You break the silence, desperate to share some commonality. "How are the kids?" you ask, frantically trying to recall whether she has any. "Fine." She starts putting chairs on desks. You have forgotten, as ever, to remind the children to do this. You jump up to help. For a few seconds, you work together, sharing a common purpose. Then she goes back to her cleaning and you to your marking. You still can't recall her name. But if you taught her children, you would remember theirs. You hope this makes it OK.

If you want to witness the grim reality of life below stairs, take a look at While we pontificate on pedagogy or performance-related pay, their forums swap cures for tennis elbow and query whether disinfectant urinal cakes in the pee tray are the best way to remove smells, or whether it's too risky because the children might eat them. The pages are littered with reminders of the ghastly nature of their work, alongside the odd bit of teacher-baiting.

One bloke comments: "To err is human - it's only teachers that can completely screw things up," echoing the sentiments of education secretary for England Michael Gove.

Site staff are the unsung heroes of education; they are our brothers of the night's watch. They shield us from the horrors that lie beyond the toilet door, keeping faecal matter, soggy toilet rolls and soiled make-up wipes at bay. And how do we reward them? With a tin of Roses chocolates at Christmas and a card that only two of us sign. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt us to stack up a few more chairs.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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