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How attention to small detail makes a big difference for schools

May 13th, 2018

First impressions count. But the right impression lasts. It is a perennial challenge for independent schools to present themselves in the best light, at all times. Only then can they develop a prestigious reputation, attract the best pupils and levy the appropriate fees to ensure prosperity.

Some aspects of a school’s public character are immediately apparent. Impressive buildings. Beautiful settings. Low pupil to staff ratios. But can that character withstand scrutiny? Make no mistake: the people whose opinions count the most are given to detailed scrutiny. The parents. School inspectors. Those from other schools. As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail. But it’s in that very detail that schools can find the greatest opportunity to prove that they’re different.

One area of detail often taken for granted is the service that keeps the school clean and its occupants happy and healthy. Despite being among the most essential school services, housekeeping is the most hidden from everyday view.

Schools looking to make the best impression, even under intimate scrutiny, should ask themselves if they place as much value on the contribution of housekeeping staff as that of the teaching staff. Another question is this: who in the senior management team knows exactly what the school’s cleaning tasks comprise? What do the cleaners clean? How often? And to what standards?

Typically, no one can answer that with any certainty. From experience, school hygiene is the poor relation to academic, artistic and sporting standards. Most schools know what they need to achieve in terms of academic success and pupil wellbeing, but few have a clear idea of what constitutes a clean, hygienic and safe school environment.

Take a close look at school cleanliness
Familiarity and a focus on other things means poor cleanliness can hide in plain sight. In contrast, looking behind the scenes, running a finger along door tops and skirting boards behind furniture can yield unflattering results. Other simple tests include inspecting beneath serving counters, checking the underside of toilet seats, thumping soft furnishings to look for a dust cloud. Here is where dirt and grime often lurk.

Where tests reveal unexpected levels of grime, it’s not unreasonable to assume that others may have already noticed it. And had their impression informed or altered by it. Parents and school visitors bring a fresh set of eyes less accustomed to the status quo. One group of school visitors who will specifically look for cleanliness, and who will invoke a few finger tests, are the Ofsted inspectors.

What does good look like?
In terms of cleanliness, a good school is one that sets standards and sticks to them. It’s where every item in the school gets cleaned to a prescribed frequency and standard. Where every act of cleaning is recorded. Should a parent or inspector ever question the standards, the school can produce documented evidence.

This is how Ofsted defines an ‘outstanding’ provision of pupils’ welfare, health and safety:

“Robust policies and procedures have been established to promote the welfare, health and safety of all pupils at all times. These comply fully with government legislation and guidance and are rigorously and consistently implemented and regularly monitored. Staff have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and commonly undertake a broad range of training to keep up to date.”

The risks of getting it wrong
Dirt can create more than a critical Ofsted report and a stream of parental and pupil complaints; it can be dangerous. Bacteria in food areas can lead to incidents of food poisoning, while traces of nuts or seafood can trigger allergic reactions. Dust also sparks allergies. And dust build-up between the front and rear panels of a radiator is a fire risk.

Beyond that, there are risks to a charitable status and the option to open up school facilities to the community. Aside from a low take-up, pools or sports halls that aren’t clean enough may damage a school’s local reputation.

Differentiate by adopting standards
From experience, a lack of enthusiasm for cleaning in schools is rare. Issues invariably stem from a lack of control. Everyone assumes the cleaning is being done, but there are no systems in place to monitor and verify the work. Recent examples include a filthy bean bag observed in a South East school; the head housekeeper concluded it must have been overlooked, as bean bag covers were on the cleaning list.

However, nothing in that school was tagged and there was no proper cleaning schedule. So therefore, no mechanism to record what was cleaned. Only by labelling every single item with a serial number, and setting the standard and frequency of cleaning, can a school start to record and control the process. Then it’s easy to run an eye over the schedule to see what’s been missed.

Standards and schedules also overcome another common problem: the demarcation line between housekeeping and maintenance. In one unusually bad case, a school pool-side was not cleaned because it wasn’t clear which team was responsible. It alleviates the all-too-common potentially systemic issues where a loose door handle or tiles coming away from the shower wall are not cleaned because they are maintenance problems. It’s not wilful, just a misunderstanding: cleaning staff leave things alone for fear of causing further damage.

Motivated staff clean better
Setting standards is vital in turning housekeeping staff into a valued part of the school team. The difference can be huge. It’s human nature. A housekeeper in a North of England school summed up the attitude change by saying “I’m no longer invisible.” Teaching staff had previously shown no interest; now they were engaged with the cleaning process and in what the housekeeping team could achieve.

Flag-waving inside and beyond the school boundaries
Naturally, no school would ever admit to low standards of cleanliness. Even where housekeeping is lacklustre, they still claim to be good. That’s where independent assessments linked to awards make a difference. External awards give truly good schools a chance to rise above the empty boasts of competitors. Awards prove that cleaning meets specific standards. They do wonders for staff morale too. There’s a clear parallel in schools: a hygiene award gives housekeeping staff the same lift that academic and sporting success gives teaching staff. It tells the world that they are doing a great job.

Independent assessment lets schools benchmark their performance against others. The school’s management team and housekeepers want to know if the existing level of hygiene is above or below the average, and by how much and in what areas. It sets the baseline and is the first step to improvement.

Going beyond the initial assessment and awards, an authentic programme will focus on continuous improvement. It will instruct a school how to achieve that improvement through a detailed schedule of performance and an action-plan for areas of underperformance. By following an action-plan, progressive schools begin to create a cleaner and healthier school environment. It also puts in place a structure for the long-term motivation of housekeeping teams – a self-fulfilling programme that both helps and encourages them to strive for higher standards.

Ultimately, perhaps, based on the pragmatic certainties of an independent school’s existence, the management team knows exactly where it stands long before the Ofsted inspectors turn up at the gate. With the school already benchmarked for health and hygiene, there will be no surprises in the Ofsted report. In turn, that glowing report alongside prestigious awards for housekeeping and hygiene set the scene: they portray a school in the best light and always attract the attention of new pupils and parents.