Taking care

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Our school caretaker had been explaining to me the difference between golden orfe and other kinds of goldfish. Caretakers often know a lot more than we give them credit for and good ones defy any orthodox job description. Given the shifts many of them work, their level of pay is diabolical, making recruitment difficult.

In the three schools where I've worked, I've known half a dozen of the breed. The first was something of a rogue. He always managed to be polishing the glass door panels in the front entrance just as the head arrived. During the rest of the day he couldn't be found. Eventually we discovered that he had a police record in another county.

I'm sure there are good women caretakers, but the only one I remember got herself into dreadful tangles with the head, and eventually fell out with him - all over the position of the school's Christmas tree. Her reign had been characterised by a succession of similar issues, and it had a debilitating effect on the school.

The most vivid character, and indeed perhaps the most effective caretaker, was an antipodean of mysterious history. He was unfailingly deferential and polite, despite being well-educated and apparently used to better employment. In his spare time he was training to be an osteopath. He was extremely popular with the parents and was always invited to social functions where he invariably helped out at the bar.

Caretakers should ideally be jacks-of-all-trades. Which brings me back to our current caretaker. Besides his expertise in pond fish (and cage birds) he is a quick-fix motor mechanic. It's not unusual to find him in the car park, between shifts, sorting out a member of staff's "little problem".

Of course, these good turns can become all too pleasant a distractions from mopping out the boys' toilets. Caretakers' basic duties must remain the foundation of their employment, but schools will benefit when such staff are given a loose enough leash for their talents to emerge.

Heads should remember that there is one individual on whom the smooth running of the school day is dependent, and it is not themselves. It's that boiler-operating, furniture-shifting, golden orfe expert.

The writer is deputy head of a primary school in East Sussex

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