When I went to school more than half a century ago, most schools had caretaker’s houses. Even earlier, in Victorian times, it was not unusual for elementary schools in some parts of the country to be built with a house for the headteacher and his family; the head was usually male in those days, as is still too often the case.
New schools were certainly still being built with caretaker’s houses attached until the late 1960s, even if houses for heads had stopped being built by then. However, with the advent of the property-owning democracy during the Thatcher era and the right to buy, the idea of "tied" homes fell out of fashion.
There is a case for saying that certain key workers need to be located near to schools. I don’t know whether a caretaker living on site (or “building facility management team leader”, as they are probably known today) helps to reduce cases of burglary and arson at schools, but I am sure that they can be a deterrent.
Perhaps all new schools might once again be built with such a house. Indeed, as a part of the drive to build new homes in high-cost areas, schools might consider adding a property to their site if there is room. This would help with the supply of affordable houses for rent in areas where buying at present prices is impossible for most people.
When the London Docklands Development Corporation was established, it built rented flats for young teachers who could not afford to live in the area. Not all local authorities in high-cost areas seem to understand that schooling, and especially primary and nursery provision, is not a service that can be moved out of the area. As a result, teachers and other staff need to be attracted to live locally, because not everyone wants a long commute at the start and end of the school day.
With the fragmentation of the school system into academy chains, voluntary and community schools and free schools, the development of policies to ensure staff can work in local schools and retain a sensible work-life balance no longer has an obvious champion. Indeed, in areas where the planning authority is not the same as that responsible for education, there may not be an understanding of the need for key-worker homes for teachers.
The position regarding housing for headteachers is obviously different. By that stage of their career, most school leaders are probably home-owners and might not want to live in school accommodation. The generous relocation allowances some schools have offered in the past are only useful if the headteacher can afford to move house while maintaining or improving their standard of living. Otherwise, governing bodies might like to think about how the life of weekly commuting heads can be made bearable.
The School Teachers’ Review Body has been asked by education secretary Nicky Morgan – in her recently issued remit letter – to consider "evidence of the national state of teacher and school leader supply, including rates of recruitment and retention, vacancy rates and the quality of candidates entering the profession". They will also have to take into account the overall limit of 1 per cent on public sector pay, so finding innovative ways to help with housing costs that don’t upset the Treasury might perform a useful public service. After all, if the Department for Education can pay £30,000 to entice bright physicists into teaching next year, surely they can find a way to help schools in high-cost housing areas to recruit and retain sufficient staff in the present economic climate.
The DfE now sets school budgets and controls the growing number of academies and free schools: that must mean it has responsibility for ensuring sufficient staff to operate those schools. And that, of course, includes caretakers.
Professor John Howson is an authority on the labour market for teachers. He is a visiting senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University