Why we should get pupils to clean their schools

If we want pupils to learn the value of proper work, let's hand them a brush and a duster, writes Irena Barker

Irena Barker

Pupils cleaning, getting pupils to clean, litter picking, school cleaners, activity passport, Damian Hinds

Since Damian Hinds launched his character-building activity passport last year, my children have been frantically posting letters, visiting museums and composing their own film soundtracks.

They spend their days climbing trees, rolling down hills and interviewing each other while simultaneous grappling with their Ordnance Survey maps.

They are yet to make chocolate (quite how is that done?) or learn how to knit, but with a few thousand extra hours I’m sure I can lead them to their goals.

They really are developing well. But it’s quite exhausting for my husband and I, who would rather just chuck them in front of Game of Thrones and leave them to it*.

All this activity has got me thinking that there must be an easier way to prepare children for any challenges life may throw at them, as Mr Hinds said.

And the answer it quite obvious. Rather than letting them expend enormous amounts of energy climbing things and choreographing their own dances, let’s simply give the kids some proper work.

Forget the career-advancing maths and English for a moment. Leave aside the humanities, the arts and the reaching-for-the-stars individualistic aspirations we bang on about every other second of the day.

Just give them a flamin’ broom. No one, not even someone in top set maths, is above a decent bit of honest cleaning.

Teachers in Scotland reported this week that funding cuts had led to school toilets not being cleaned regularly, and staff being forced to use wet wipes to cleanse their own tables.

This is clearly grim news for them, and schools should of course be provided with the resources to clean their schools effectively.

But it does seem faintly ridiculous that each school has a potentially enormous and under-exploited workforce.

If, as they do in Japan, we could create a culture of children cleaning their own schools, just think what could be gained.

In the UK, cleaning is regarded as a menial and even demeaning activity, but that’s only because it’s largely done by women for free or on very low pay.

In reality, it is a fine and noble thing that can be soothing and satisfying. It is a vital part of life and I can find it nowhere on Hinds’ activity passport.

Done together, it teaches teamwork and collective responsibility and encourages respect for the environment. How many children would continue to clump about in muddy shoes and disrespect the toilets if they knew they were cleaning them later?

Above all, it is a great leveller. Nobody’s too important to clean up.

My dad was a secondary headteacher who spent time every morning picking up litter from the school field with his bare hands.

It shouldn’t have been him doing it, but he never saw it as below him, just something that had to be done.

I can, of course, hear the sighs from teachers and school leaders who know how much resistance children might put up against this idea.

I also understand – as a mother of three young reprobates – that it is often far more time consuming to make children do chores than it is to do them yourself.

But it’s a question of culture and investment. If we start them young in the nursery years and it becomes an expectation, surely it can be done?

And we don’t need any job losses either: the children would need overseers to co-ordinate their work and take on any gruesome tasks that present a challenge to health and safety.

I am not an extremist. As my kids will tell you, they have never had to grapple with a blocked U-bend alone.

And there is no need to worry about it eating into lessons either: cleaning is a lesson – one about responsibility, respect and the endless repetitive obligations of life.

*Joke, we would never let them watch Game of Thrones without us.

Irena Barker is a writer and parent

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