When is a door not a door?

You know how all Hoovers are vacuum cleaners but not all vacuum cleaners are Hoovers? Well the same is true for Portakabins, Terrapins, HORSAs and Prattens.  They are all types of demountable, portable and ‘temporary’ buildings (but not all demountable, portable and 'temporary' buildings are made by those four companies). In my school career I have worked in a terrapin, mobiles, a demountable and a Pratten.

We have five such ‘temporary’ buildings on our school site, housing exactly half the school – eight classes, 240 children. (I will keep putting ‘temporary’ in those quote marks to make a point and raise a question – at what point does temporary become nonsense?)

I have been Headteacher here for eight and a half years now – I have seen two generations of pupils pass through. All the ‘temporary’ buildings on site predate both the pupils and me. In fact, some go back over 20 years. Is there any definition of ‘temporary’, or any indication of how long the foreseeable future will be, that means half our pupils are taught (and half our staff work) in buildings that are not supposed to be staying?

Two weeks ago, on the recommendation of the city council, the school’s Governing Board agreed to hold out admission limit at 120 pupils per year group. This single decision means we will, for at least another four years from September 2022, have pupils and staff in ‘temporary’ accommodation. It is worth repeating and stressing that it was a recommendation by Sheffield City Council, whose own projections are that primary school pupil numbers will drop over the next five to ten years and place planning will be necessary. (We lost six pupils in the summer, but gained six immediately to fill again at 480 pupils. The city-wide picture may be falling rolls due to a falling birth rate but it does not mean every school will have falling numbers on roll.) We can assume, therefore, that SCC thinks our 120 places will be needed as far into the future as we can foresee.

The lifetime of a mobile can be anything from twenty to fifty years. A report in the USA said that the average period of use there was six years. To reach the projected oldest age they do have to be maintained and managed well, as with any building. But it does seem very odd – spending money on upkeep on a temporary structure that could be taken down and taken away at any point.

Maintenance for us has included;

  • the current installation programme of a third generation of heaters in nine years (from gas to convector warm air curtains to space heating fans to fixed electric radiators);
  • replacing three fire escape steps and ramps;
  • replacing two entrance canopies;
  • replacing an entrance ramp;
  • refitting a toilet floor;
  • classroom lighting;
  • replacing Fire Exit doors;
  • rebuilding steps, ramps and handrails;
  • constant works on electrics (to prevent overload due to heater use);
  • outside walls, roofs and guttering.

A scheme of repair merely maintains buildings that leave too few toilets for too many children, for example (and two mobiles with no toilets).

Funding a permanent solution comes in one of two routes – centrally, by our needs being the number one priority for the limited capital money SCC gets, or locally, by us saving up over a number of years until we can afford to fund building works ourselves. There is a whole blog-worth on the difficulties of that solution – basically, we can only save so much and have to account for why we are holding so much. The city’s Headteachers were recently called to account for the surplus we currently hold (ours is about £30,000 on a budget of £2 million) so we would be pressed if we tried holding back the funds needed to double the capacity of our school bricks and mortar building.

I worked on a training placement back in 1986 in a mobile classroom at Dobcoft Juniors. It has only just been demolished and replaced. Maybe having our mobiles for 20 plus years ain’t so bad, and in an era of executive home office sheds in the back garden maybe we were ahead of the time?

Why do we want them replaced?

  • For confidence in the future of the school
  • For better heating, ventilation and power supply
  • To improve insulation (and lower our carbon footprint)
  • To improve toilets and cloakrooms
  • To improve on-site security
  • To lower our on-going maintenance bills
  • To invest in people and communities right across the city
  • To make our school community feel valued
  • To make half our school feel respected and treated fairly

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