22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Dave spotted a man driving a JCB along the road, walked out and offered Pounds 200 cash if he'd drive his digger into the lavs

The other day I heard that another school had dispensed with its premises officer. The head had decided to employ someone to lock and unlock the building, and then buy in other services when they were needed.

It's a trend that surprises me, because a good premises officer is as crucial to a school's success as an able admin assistant. If the premises officer lives on site, vandalism is cut to a minimum, but there's more to it than that.

Our premises officer hasn't been with us long, but he'd done occasional days for us and I was keen to appoint him when the incumbent officer retired. He took over at an awful time. We were being rewired, and up to the last week of the summer holiday there were bits of broken plaster and brick everywhere. Not only did Dave manage to get everything spotless for the beginning of term, he was always available to help teachers rearrange and organise their classroom furniture. He was genuinely touched when they had a collection for him, though they'd been equally surprised to find a schoolkeeper with such endless cheerfulness and enthusiasm.

An avid Millwall supporter, he was soon running football teams after school and entering them into local tournaments. Before long, we'd filled a shelf outside my room with pots and shields. He's also shown himself to be a man who can turn his hand to most DIY jobs, and if he can't do it, he'll know someone who can. When my Mini suffered a puncture and I'd left my jack at home, I could hear Dave dragging the hefty jack he'd borrowed from the car wrecker's yard five streets away.

But his greatest talent is grabbing an opportunity when he sees one. We decided to get rid of the old outside lavatories to create a park area, and Dave got a quote from the LEA. Taken aback by the suggested pound;6,000, he said he'd "have a think about it". A fortnight later I came into school to find a heap of rubble where the toilets had been. For a moment I thought he'd attacked them with a sledgehammer. But no, he'd spotted a man driving a JCB along the road, walked out and offered pound;200 cash if he'd drive his digger into the lavs. The man obliged and the children in Year 6 spent many happy playtimes tossing broken bricks into a skip while Dave saved the good ones for building the flower beds.

Which was how we discovered his wife had a talent too. For someone brought up in the city, she has the greenest fingers imaginable. Like Dave, Debbie has an eye for a bargain, and to fill the new flower beds she visited the local market, made friends with the traders and charmed them into delivering huge quantities of plants and shrubs at ridiculously low prices.

That spring, our playground looked a treat: hanging baskets, beds and tubs, small trees in neat brick beds and clematis-covered fencing everywhere. Two gardening clubs were started to maintain this floral abundance. And still the plants arrived, so Debbie bought lots of baskets and made them into Mother's Day gifts for the children at pocket money prices. Soon, the wall of football trophies was supplemented by certificates and awards from City in Bloom competitions.

It seems to me that any school not cultivating the talents of its premises officer could be missing out. Chatting to Dave after a governors' meeting one night, I commented on the length of his working day. "Yes, it is long," he agreed, "but I've never been happier." Looking at what he and his wife have added to our school, I can say the feeling is mutual.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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