Swept away

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Janitors have been hit hard by this year's council cuts. But schools are losing a lot more than building minders. Janitors can be messengers, joiners, supervisors and valued friends of both staff and pupils. Jane Walker reports.

When is a janitor not a janitor? When he's training the school football team, or when he's the chief officer for the school, or when he's accompanying a group of pupils from school to swimming pool.

To many teachers, the janitor is never there when he's needed, spends all his time in his office having a smoke, and has a serious attitude problem. Hardly broad-minded, especially given that the average teacher has neither much idea nor interest in how a janitor fills his or her day.

But soon many janitors really won't be there when they are needed. Not out of laziness, but because of council budget cuts. Jobs have already started to go, and there are now 84 fewer janitors in the City of Edinburgh than there were 10 years ago. A recent review of janitorial services in Moray has also led to a proposed cut from 44 to 13 full-time jobs, with 22 part-time posts.

Posts are not filled following retirements, and a growing number of "floating" janitors are being used to cover for vacancies. As well as using peripatetic staff, some authorities require their janitors to "double up" when needed. So an assistant janitor in a city high school of 1,400 pupils could be asked to provide cover in a small primary school on the outskirts. It's a different job in different schools.

In Milnathort Primary School in Perth and Kinross, for example, there is an air of calm. First job of the day for janitor Willie Ireland, after opening the school at 7am, is sweeping up the glass from a window broken by an over-zealous footballer. A damp patch on the carpet outside the assembly hall needs investigation after that, and then it's out to the playground to try to unblock a drain. With these jobs done and the classes settled at 9am, Willie can take a half-hour break at home, just a few hundred yards away from school.

A gentle and modest man, whose little-known claim to fame is his runner-up prize in the British Amateur Wrestling Championships, Willie Ireland - like many others - became a janitor by default. A mechanic by trade, he had spent 19 years of his working life doing general maintenance work in a chicken hatchery, where between 70,000 and 80,000 chickens were born each day. This heavy work led to serious health problems and the prospect of heart bypass surgery, and Willie came to a "mutual agreement'' to leave the hatchery. And so a year and a half ago the sound of 70,000 bawling chickens was replaced by the sound of 190 primary pupils' sweet voices.

Until now Willie's open-doored room has served as first port of call for visitors to the school, and like many other janitors he has had to be receptionist, caretaker and security officer. Now it is being moved to allow the school office to be in the main reception area and also to allow a new library to be created.

Given a challenge like this, Willie is obviously in his element, and, returning from breakfast, he expertly removes shelves and units ready to be transported elsewhere. Like other janitors, especially in small schools, he would "always rather be doing something useful''.

He has acquired a reputation for being willing to turn his hand to a variety of jobs, the most popular of which seems to have been his rebuilding of the stage for the school Christmas production. Although these are the types of jobs traditionally associated with janitors, not all are nearly so accommodating.

As Willie Ireland makes the teachers' tea, rings the playtime bell, goes out to supervise play, and prepares to check the toilets, it's clear that his job entails a great deal more than just the maintenance of the building.

He is popular with the pupils, described variously in Primary 7 as "a really nice guy'', "an eagle eye'' and "a mobile bin''. He combines playground litter collection with supervision of pupils' play, an enormous responsibility in itself; at lunchtime, getting 140 kids out into the playground on cold days can be, according to Willie, "a daunting task''.

In this role, too, a gentle, avuncular figure such as Willie Ireland can encounter potential problems with what he describes as "the cuddly kids''. It's a sad but grim reality of today's society that the janitor, like everyone else in education, has to keep his distance from pupils. In Milnathort, the local majorettes group, the karate club and the children's meeting of the Gospel Hall all rely on Willie to be there to open and close up the school and to see to any problems during the evening.

Seven o'clock to 9.30pm is a long day, three times a week, but it is the only way to make the job economically viable. Take-home pay, on an average grade, is approximately Pounds 140 a week. It's an economic necessity for Willie Ireland to do overtime, and this comes in the form of after-hour "lets'' which add Pounds 60 a week. He also uses his qualifications as a driving instructor to boost his income.

There's a world of difference between rural Perthshire and Craigmillar in Edinburgh, between a small primary school and a community high school, although the problem of low pay is common to both. Similar too are the good humour and dedication with which the janitors do their work.

Unlike Willie Ireland, who is unaffiliated to any union, Terry O'Donnell, head janitor at Castlebrae Community High School in the Craigmillar estate, is an active member of Unison and vice-convenor of the union's manual workers (education) branch in Edinburgh. A flamboyant character who seems to be everyone's pal, Terry is in charge of a team of three janitors and is quick to point out that the full complement for Castlebrae ought to be five. Financial reality for Terry, on a higher grade than Willie, is roughly Pounds 150 a week, and five nights a week of lets and weekends, which are seasonal, can raise his wage by about Pounds 130 a week.

After working in the Post Office and then as a fruit-machine engineer, Terry O'Donnell learned most of his skills while setting up a roller-disco and nightclub in Tenerife. He was a peripatetic janitor in Edinburgh, covering temporary vacancies, before moving to Castlebrae in 1982. But the job has changed considerably over the years.

Terry describes his job in those days as "custodial''. His involvement with school discipline is the aspect of his work which has changed most dramatically. This is instantly obvious in the janitors' office, where he has charge of a number of closed-circuit television screens, showing different strategic areas of the school. With videotapes constantly running, headteacher Willie Crosbie is able to ask for a re-run of a particular problem time and area. One janitor is also normally monitoring the screens during break times.

Pupils at Castlebrae don't have a playground, and have to make do with an adjoining field. So supervision is restricted to indoors at the entrance and in an upper corridor. The large, architecturally striking building was designed for 600-700 pupils but now has a roll of just 275. However, it is used by 200 adult learners every day and by an adjoining family centre, so all rooms in the school are occupied and the work level of the janitorial team has not fallen.

Committed to the preservation of jobs in the city, and to his work for Unison, Terry O'Donnell's loyalty and pride about Castlebrae Community High is striking. His respect for the headteacher is clear, and he obviously supports the school's child-centred ethos, adopted as part of the school's regeneration programme. As head janitor, he attends all principal teachers' and financial meetings.

Acutely aware of the negative image of Craigmillar, Terry O'Donnell is anxious to point out that although a check for vandalism is part of his daily routine, there are rarely any major problems; a result, perhaps, of the closed-circuit television monitors. Evidence of drugs in or around the building is also rare.

The falling roll at Castlebrae has angered Terry, who attributes it to a combination of the parents' charter and "plain snobbery'', and talks proudly of the school's employment and further education successes.

Despite their working differences, Willie Ireland and Terry O'Donnell have something other than low pay and long hours in common. Both show tremendous commitment and loyalty to their schools, characteristics which cannot be expected of temporary or part-time janitors.

A reduction in janitorial cover has wide-ranging implications. Terry O'Donnell points out that for his under-manned team of four to have a rota of staggered breaks during a 6am-to-6pm working day, there are six and a half hours when only one janitor is on duty. In security terms alone, this is worrying. But faced with frozen posts and job losses, many heads, teachers and pupils could find that they lose not just a caretaker for the building, but a messenger, a joiner, a supervisor and a valued friend.

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