Jobsworths get me all fired up

30th April 2010 at 01:00

My parents knew Bill, who worked for the railways. Bill was fastidious about time. Every day, as he parked his car in the garage at the end of his garden, he pulled a string attached to a bell in the house. This was a signal for his wife to put his supper on the table. If it wasn't there dead on time, he wouldn't eat it. God knows what he must have been like to live with.

I'm often reminded of Bill as I encounter the various jobsworths who enter my school each year. They either park themselves in my office expecting me to spend two hours answering their inane questions, or wander around the school, clipboard and pencil in hand, sucking their teeth at each indiscretion before delivering a doom-laden verdict at the end of the morning. Recently, it was the turn of a fire safety officer. Fortunately, I was helping at the Southwark Music Festival, so I didn't see the steam coming out of Premises Officer Dave's ears.

Let me put things in context. I'm the first to admit that fire safety in school is incredibly important, but my school was built in the reign of Queen Victoria, when a bucket of wet sand was the cutting-edge technology for dousing any flames. The corridors are narrow and the conditions are cramped, but even the Normans would have had a job attacking the building. Like many schools built last century, it is a stone fortress, and I'm not aware of any premises like mine being burned to the ground. Indeed, the only fire I recall in one of these stone learning emporiums during the last 50 years was caused by arson - and then only because the school had foolishly decided it didn't need an on-site premises officer with a big dog.

Nevertheless, Mr Jobsworth set about his task with tooth-grinding determination, and it was soon apparent that these gentlemen have a lexicon all of their own. Our walls were covered with "hazardous substances" which needed to be removed immediately. This was a reference to the children's work which decorates all the walls and is such a feature of our school.

Next came a "trip hazard" in the corridor, otherwise known as "a child's coat that had fallen off its peg and dropped to the floor". Ah, but the coat shouldn't be on a peg in the corridor anyway. It should be in a locked cloakroom. Dave pointed out that the cloakrooms had been converted into mandatory inside toilets during the Seventies, so where were we going to store the coats other than corridor coat rails? "Not my problem," said Mr J.

Then he examined the classrooms and halls. Hopeless, he said. Breaking every rule in the book. The school should be equipped with water sprinklers that turn on automatically as fire is detected. Each hall should have automatic doors that glide shut if the temperature rises. And those cabin hooks on the doors to keep them open as the children come in and out of assembly? Dear oh dear. Fetch a screwdriver and get them off immediately, never mind the fact that the knob on a swinging door could take a child's teeth out.

He even said the fire alarm needed completely renewing - despite it being deemed fine just 18 months ago.

Dave pointed out that our school budget simply wouldn't stretch to #163;125,000 of fire-safety improvements, and using common sense didn't mean we were putting children's lives at risk. Back came the immediate, helpful response: "Not my problem."

I returned from the music festival just as he was leaving. Interestingly, he'd parked his car right across the fire gates.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email:

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