FULL STORY TO APPEAR IN THE JANUARY 2010 ISSUE!
I was saying that St Mary’s-under-Marsh used to be a Catholic girls’ school in —-. It was bombed flat in the War, and rebuilt, which means you get the usual problems with old schools: no-one tidies up these old buildings that get bombed; they just build another lot on top. When the governors decided that they’d had enough, they’d sent the student body to merge with a boys’ school down by the estuary and put the land up for tender, and near the end of that process was where we came in.
To shut down a school, this is what you do:
Arrive in two cars, not a van; that’s partly so that we can put it on the risk assessment that team members will be able to get help independently, and partly because we get jokes if all five of us turn up in a van. Normally Paul picks me up and goes on to get Becky, and Terry collects the equipment and Father Mike. The last few times, Paul and Becky have turned up to get me. Wait to be let in by the caretaker, who’s been told you’ve come to do an electrical safety test. Walk around the site, the grounds and outbuildings, taking account of any abnormal readings on your handhelds (Paul and Terry) or shivers up your spine (Father Mike and me). Whenever anything seems as if it shouldn’t be there, carry out a little superstitious ritual and take the atmospherics again. Upload the signatures to our office database as we go, to check for repeat appearances in case anything’s concealing itself on our soil by imitating the traces of our young. Drive home and argue with Paul and Becky over whether to listen to drivetime, the evening football build-up or symphonic metal in the car.
We missed the turn-off for the school the first time because I was telling Paul about which buildings had changed use on the site and we had to take a detour past the town football stadium. Paul supports West Ham, Becky supports Arsenal, Terry prefers rugby (he coaches a Colts team and the Cub Scouts) and Father Mike supports Doncaster. You learn these things about people, when you spend nine visits out of ten carrying out a ritual invented by a distraught war widow just in case of what would happen if you don’t. Summer’s when we do most of the work, needless to say; the rest of the year is tests, remedial visits, and justifying our contract every time they put a new minister into the DCSF. When the work’s slow, we get seconded around the charity to things like working groups on child poverty, which is a bit more like what I’d rather be doing; the people you meet from the other offices say they’ve never heard of your department and ask whether you’re youth field workers, which I suppose we almost are.
“I don’t spend much time with children, though,” I tend to say, and someone will invariably go, “Jealous.”
They could have brought us directly into government, but it’s probably for the best that they never did. Directors of children’s services have a hard enough job these days without the tabloids finding out they’re spending public money on woo-woo too.
Because St Mary’s-under-Marsh is Catholic, there’s been a bit of a turf war with the local bishop, and that’s why we were only getting access to the site at that time of year. I don’t know what we’re going to do about the other kinds of faith schools. It’s not my job to bother, but Terry goes to workshops about it every so often with DCSF and a stand-in for the Communities Secretary, so that they can make a show (in front of the very few people who know that there’s actually a show to make) of respecting today’s multi-faith society. My guess is that we’ll do exactly the same thing, but with an imam or a rabbi instead of Father Mike, and every so often I’ll have to take off my shoes.
Sorry, DCSF is the Department for Children, Schools and Families–or “Department for Children’s Soft Furnishings,” but I can’t take credit for that one–I heard it from a university vice-chancellor when we went in on a slow afternoon to condemn a handful of Portakabins they’d been using for foundation courses.
“You’d feel safe sending a daughter to a school like that, wouldn’t you?” Paul said when he finally hit the turn-off and saw the sign the council hadn’t taken down yet. He smiled at Becky and made it clear the important word was a daughter, not a school. “I don’t know about that,” she said, and her face fell. Paul turned his smile round on me and went, “Megan’s come out of it all right–ain’t you?” Not being Becky, I wasn’t playing up to it, so he made the best of a bad job and said, “Except it didn’t do much for her taste in men.”
He pulled in to park up in the governors’ car park.