When our water turned into whine

17th September 2010 at 01:00

I had water problems during the summer holidays. No, not because I'm getting old. The problems actually started in June when a massive water bill arrived and I felt an icy hand grip at my innards. Since our school was built just after the Normans arrived, the network of pipes running under it has to be seen to be believed.

Premises officer Dave prised up the cover on the water meter in the road. Sure enough, the needle was whizzing round like a spinning top. "Here we go again," said Dave. "We've had water leaks before and we know just how much fun they can be."

Secretary Sandra phoned the water board and managed to get through in under three days. The lady said she would put a hold on our bill and send somebody to trace the leak, but it wouldn't be until the end of August. Sandra also phoned the corporate services team of the local authority, and they said they would see what they could do.

I knew Dave wouldn't sit around until August and he immediately phoned a plumber, who stood in the playground stroking his chin and doing the intake of breath that workmen do when they are about to say, "Oh dear, who fitted this for you, mate?" Amazingly, he didn't say that. He said, "Ah, it'll all be old lead pipe. I can dig a trench and re-do everything in poly. Cost about 10 grand, give or take."

Dave picked himself off the floor, declined the offer and fetched shovels for him and his son. "The leak will be near the nursery tap," he said. "We'll dig it up ourselves."

By the middle of July, when we were about to break up, we were no nearer to finding the leak. "Don't worry," said Dave optimistically, "we'll sort it before September."

A week into the holiday, workmen sent by the local authority arrived. After spending a day wandering around the premises they still had no idea where the leak was, and Dave felt he would do just as well with a divining stick. The following day, a different firm turned up. They couldn't find it either. Meantime, the water board had phoned, offering to dig up the road around the water meter to check the meter wasn't faulty. They would come, they said, the following Tuesday. They didn't turn up.

Then, hunting through Yellow Pages, Dave found a firm that used a system of injecting gas into the pipes and then using a device to track where the gas, and therefore the water, was leaking out. They guaranteed not to charge unless the leak could be found... and they guaranteed to find the leak.

They had a nightmare of a time. It seemed that when the old Inner London Education Authority had been servicing the school, their plumbers had ripped out bits of piping and put a huge number of stopcocks in, most of which had rusted solid. The same morning, the water board man who was supposed to trace the leak arrived, but he said no, he couldn't actually trace leaks because he had only been on the job a couple of weeks. "But I can tell you," he said, "you've definitely got a leak."

By now, staff were returning to school to prepare their classrooms for the new term and Dave had to tell them they couldn't make coffee or use the toilets. And then, suddenly, success. The injection team traced the leak to a dodgy stopcock under a manhole, and it was rapidly repaired... just two days before term started.

I sighed with relief as we opened on time. I could imagine parents' reactions if I had told them the holiday had been extended.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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