17 February 2021
These have been difficult times for us all and much praise has, quite rightly, been afforded to those that have helped steer us through some testing days. We have lauded key workers across the NHS, the teaching profession, retail and public transport but there is one group that has largely been forgotten – support staff in schools. ‘It’s quite simple – without cleaners, catering staff, maintenance workers and caretakers, no school can open,’ says Ian Clarke, Head of Estates at Bolton School. ‘Whilst the media keeps reporting on schools being closed, the reality is that up two hundred support and teaching staff are on site at Bolton School every day. Like all schools we are open to the children of key workers and for vulnerable girls and boys. I have watched with pride as our Estates team has stepped up to the plate and met every demand with, as far as possible, a smile on our faces. Yes, there have been moments of crisis and wobbles but, overall, our staff have been outstanding throughout the pandemic.’
Ian is very much convinced that school support staff deserve to be inoculated alongside teachers in what he hopes will be part of the drive to get pupils back to school in the Spring. ‘The sooner we can get the jab the better. My frontline staff are in daily proximity to children. Even now, there are still over 200 pupils on site every day plus our Nursery which is running as normal – the Infant School has over 90 children in attendance, slightly smaller numbers of Junior School and Senior School pupils are also on site. I think it is easy to forget how many people are required to run a school campus. We are a large all-through school with many separate buildings. We currently have twenty cleaners across the campus; ten new daytime posts were created for the return to school in September and many of them have become established members of the school teams in which they work. Right now we also have fifteen catering staff, three maintenance operatives, security staff, who are on duty 24/7 and 365 days a year, 7 caretakers, a grounds person, people working in Finance and IT, along with some teachers who are also on site. It is staff like our Plumbing and Heating Engineer that people forget about. He has to be on campus to keep the boilers ticking over – we need the heating on as it is winter and many windows are open to improve ventilation. Likewise our swimming pool technician, who, despite the swimming pool remaining shut, still has to follow current guidance on maintaining water quality and keeping the facility in good order. If we have people in our buildings, it does not really matter if they are 100 or 1000 in number, there are still things that have to be done to ensure that we have followed specific guidance and regulations, for example treating water to control Legionella, following fire regulations such as weekly testing and the monitoring of all such systems.
‘Our staff are on the front-line each and every day. Our cleaners are going around each school continuously and they regularly come into contact with the bodily fluids of children, when they clean toilets, wipe handrails, window sills and door knobs, and empty bins. Our catering staff are face to face with the pupils each day as we continue to provide a full menu which is prepared in-house and distributed around the campus.
‘At Bolton School we don’t feel like unsung heroes but I do hear a lot of stories anecdotally of caretakers being run ragged and given no thanks or breaks. We have been lucky in that we have been well supported by governors and our senior leadership teams as well as being backed by all the School’s employees. It is important that our staff and their families abide by government rules and, when we are not at work, stay home as much as possible; everyone is very conscious that they do not want to bring the virus into the school setting.’
Considering the stresses of the past months, Ian said: ‘People can forget the immense planning that has been – and continues to be – put in place. You can read the guidance late into the night and then in the morning the stipulations have changed again! Lots of effort has gone into ensuring the premises are as clean and safe as they can be. As guidance changes, so do our requirements for PPE and cleaning materials and the cost of kit can fluctuate accordingly. Right at the start, before the virus was in full tilt, I took a plunge on buying 500 bottles of sanitiser at £1.50 each; 12 weeks later and the same bottles sold at £9 each. Likewise, disposable gloves, which need to be changed after every room is cleaned, went from £2 per box to £12 per box! Just as we thought we were breaking for Christmas, we were told by the government that school would be administering lateral flow tests to children on our return. That meant myself and Senior Leaders working late into Christmas Eve and during the days in between Christmas and New Year as we secured kit that we thought we might need to set up a mass testing centre for over 2,000 children and staff.’
‘All that said,’ concluded Ian, ‘there has been some lighter moments and I have been so proud of everyone on our team. I just pray that the government does not forget about us if it decides to vaccinate teachers in order to get children back into school.’