The awesome lives of school caretakers

UNISON member Maggie Fordham is a support worker in her local UNISON branch. Here, she writes about some of the remarkable school caretakers she’s met in her job.


In recent photographs of Terry traces of his younger, wilder days can still be seen. The messy ringlets spiralling down to his shoulders and the coloured shirts signal an interesting past. He still has the open smile that wowed the fans of his band Hawkwind back in the 1970s. Terry joined as drummer at the age of 17, the baby of the band.

Terry described the band as “a people’s band”, playing for free at benefit concerts for politically active organisations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. When the band became commercially successful, Terry parted company and went his own way. Hawkwind went on to make over 30 albums in a long career, but Terry has no regrets about turning his back on the rockstar lifestyle.

Many years later, Terry became a celebrity at the school where he worked as a caretaker. He started in the job to cover for a friend who had been injured, but, when his friend was unable to return, Terry was employed on a permanent contract and he ended up staying 13 years. The job suited him; he was good at fixing things and the hours allowed him to continue playing music. He enjoyed the camaraderie of his colleagues and the liveliness of being around young people.

In 2010, the school Terry worked at became an academy and he witnessed a decline in its character. Previously, the school had a general staff room where teachers and support staff mixed as co-workers. The academy then replaced this with departmental staff rooms, where teams became divided and insular. A string of head teachers came and went, each lasting a couple of years or so. The school lost its stability and the confidence of the community, was managed like a business and was judged only on academic results. The ethos of friendliness, tolerance and local inclusion was replaced with smart uniforms and conformity.

After a serious accident whilst cleaning, Terry had to take time off sick to recover. He left with a compensation payment and just missed out on his full pension. He’s sanguine about the circumstances of his leaving, he’s that sort of guy. He reminisces: “it was an enjoyable place to work back in the day”. Terry continues with his music.


Paul Anderson works as caretaker at a local secondary school to support himself as an artist. He makes ceramic sculptures and draws portraits, and used to work in computing before he became a caretaker. He has published a book of his own illustrated short stories and micro fiction called Schemata, and his work is held online in a virtual studio.

Like Terry, Paul has seen many changes at the school since first becoming a caretaker. His school joined one of the largest academy chains in the country at a time when the government was offering huge cash incentives, and encouraging schools to operate on profit. Paul’s school embarked on an extensive programme of outsourcing services to private companies.

Financial irregularities and poor performance were not uncommon in the early days of academies and the new structure did not improve poor-performing schools as the government had promised. Successful schools took the plunge and continued to do well, but the school where Paul worked failed financially after becoming an academy and standards did not improve. In 2016, an Ofsted Inspector recommended the school be taken back under local authority control.

In 2017, the trust began drastic cuts to the school’s budget to ward off closure. It announced its intention to cut £1.4 million from the Estates and Caretaking budget across its London schools which resulted in some schools cutting caretaking staff by 50%. A flood of redundancies followed.

Paul survived the chaos and is still pushing his broom. He contemplated taking redundancy but, whilst the redundancy payment on offer looked attractive, he realised it wouldn’t pay the bills for very long. As a workplace, the school is unrecognisable now. He said: “It’s all hard work for me and my colleagues. The best days are now gone. I work to pay the rent and that is about it.”


Isabel Victor is the site manager at a local primary school in South West London. She settled in the UK with her family seeking a better life after escaping the civil war in Angola. Isabel has worked at the school for four years, after a job in the care sector. The long shifts in the care home meant that she didn’t get to spend enough time with her daughter.

Though she’d never had any previous experience as a caretaker or manager, the skills she developed in her nine years at the care home were transferable to the site manager position. She’s now employed by the Compass Group, who have the contract for caretaking and cleaning at the school. Compass pays less than the current rate for a job with such responsibilities, but the shifts she works give Isabel a better work-life balance, and she gets to spend more time with her daughter. She gets a lot of satisfaction from her job.

The school is in an affluent area of the borough and there are very few children receiving free school meals. It is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and Isabel is very much part of the school community. She goes to staff social events and the parents and children all know her name and greet her when she opens the gates every morning. She was surprised to hear she is possibly the only woman working as a caretaker in the borough, she is certainly the only one in UNISON, but as she clearly demonstrates, it is a job in which women can succeed.


Steve was a caretaker at a local infant school for 14 years, up until his retirement six years ago. He freely admits that he took the caretaking job at the school at a time when he needed somewhere to live and the school were offering a flat to go with the job.

Steve has a community-focused personality. He knew many parents with children at the school, as well as those of the support staff who lived in the neighbourhood. He was popular, and therefore made an effective UNISON steward, regularly dropping into the UNISON office with fistfuls of joining forms.

With this gift for recruitment, Steve took on a year’s secondment with UNISON to sign up new members in schools across two London boroughs. His plain-speaking style came in useful at meetings and in representations with members. He knew from his own experience that strapped-for-cash schools could exploit the on-site caretakers, causing them to over-work and eat into their personal time.

Steve’s goodwill was tested on many occasions at his school. Despite the head teacher’s rhetoric, Steve did not feel like he was a valued member of the school team, and instead felt invisible in the general life of the school.

After Steve’s retirement, the school replaced him with a caretaker whose hours are divided with a neighbouring school. Standards of care have declined, especially the toilets. There is nobody on site to do the several evening checks to make sure that all staff have gone home and all 18 doors are locked. When it came to Steve’s retirement, no documents could be found on what should happen to the accommodation, or to the live-in caretaker.

Determined to secure his own rights, Steve contacted the housing office. He argued persistently that he was being made homeless by no fault of his own and that it was the duty of the local authority to rehouse him. He is now housed in a smart flat run by a Housing Association and has browbeaten the council for money to introduce community gardens and raised vegetable patches.

As the years go on, school caretakers are becoming undervalued and are increasingly being replaced by mobile maintenance staff to save money. Private companies tend to look after several schools in an area and operate within tight time schedules. The sense of a caretaker being a known and valued member of a school community – where everyone’s contribution to the life of the school is respected equally – is disappearing. School caretakers are local treasures and it’s a loss to be mourned.

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