Energy bills always take a sizeable chunk out of the annual budget, but I bet your school hasn't had an electricity bill like the one that recently landed on my desk. It was for #163;57,548.62. Naturally, there's a story behind this ...
Five years ago we suddenly stopped receiving electricity bills, and a credit note arrived. This seemed odd, but the meter had been read and we assumed we were getting a refund after being overcharged on the previous estimated bill. We duly filed the credit for using the next time around. Three months later, another credit note arrived, but for a different amount. Rather pleased that we didn't have to pay any money, we filed this one, too, and put the money we would have used to pay the bill into our interest-earning account.
Another three months passed and once again a credit note arrived. Secretary Sandra commented that we had either overpaid drastically last year or something wasn't right. She suspected the latter and rang the electricity supply company. A nice lady at the other end thanked her for ringing and said she would get back to us as soon as possible. She didn't, the days passed and, school life being what it is, we forgot all about it.
Until yet another credit note arrived. This time, the premises officer phoned the company. He was bewildered because a man had read the meter, it appeared to be working correctly, the numbers on it were heading upwards, and we still hadn't received a bill. Once again, there was a thank you for calling, it would be investigated, and someone would be in touch. Once again, we forgot about it.
By the time the next quarter had passed, almost a year had gone by and still the credits came. It was becoming irritating, although we weren't unduly concerned because we had put money to pay the bill aside each month, so that when matters were corrected we could settle the account in our usual fashion.
The only person who showed concern was my accountant, who visits the school each month to do the difficult financial stuff. "It's crazy and it can't be right," he said. "You must keep trying to contact them ... and make sure you don't spend the money you've put aside."
Almost before we knew it, three years had gone by and then five, and we were now used to a credit note arriving regularly in the post. I wrote to the electricity company but didn't receive a reply and we phoned several times more, although half-heartedly because the interest on the savings was building up nicely. Meantime, whenever the accountant arrived his first question was always: "Surely they must have realised by now?"
And two weeks ago, they did. A fat package arrived in the post, containing estimated bills for the past five years and the most extraordinary letter from the company's debt collector. Sorry about this, he said, but your meter seems to be an older type and for the past five years our meter men have been reading five digits when they should have been reading six. I'm afraid you owe a great deal of money, but I didn't want to write before Christmas because it might have ruined your holiday.
Since we hadn't put anything like this huge amount aside, I am currently in deep conversation with the electricity company, particularly since my Year 1 children wouldn't have any difficulty reading all the digits on a meter. It also struck me that to reach this level of inefficiency you would be eligible for some kind of award.
I'll let you know what happens. But it could be five years hence.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.