22 April 2005
Cleaning is too often the invisible service. But Belbclean has put an end to that, boosting staff and teachers' morale alike by transforming school cleaning in Belfast. Paul Gosling reports
The Public Servants of the Year Awards are about recognising the people who make a difference even if their work is often overlooked. Belbclean, joint winners of the Outstanding Team of the Year Award, have proved that cleaners can have an effect not just on the smartness of public buildings, but also on the morale of frontline staff and the willingness of the public to use the buildings.
However, a visit to Belbclean's headquarters is hardly auspicious. It is tucked away off the fiercely sectarian Ormeau Road in Belfast, accessible either through a smart leafy suburban street, full of potted plants and expensive cars, or via a second gate in a loyalist stronghold, with a flag of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force hanging from a roof nearby. Typically for Belfast, the best and the worst lie right next to each other.
All public servants in Northern Ireland are in some way caught in its sectarian divide. School cleaners are no exception. Some schools are Catholic, others are mostly Protestant and just a few are genuinely mixed. Cleaners, like the children, stay within their own community and usually meet no one from the other religion.
Ending this has been just one of the many changes achieved by Belbclean since it was established in 2001 to take over the cleaning of 220 schools in the Belfast Education and Library Board (Belb) area. Now both Protestants and Catholics among Belbclean's 619 cleaning staff and 187 building supervisors from across the city join up to meet and train together.
In many other ways, Belbclean which operates as part of Belb has provided a coherent and well managed centre to run school cleaning, where previously there was devolved chaos. Cleaning staff now receive the highest quality training, are supplied with uniforms and receive a quarterly employees' newsletter.
'Before we started Belbclean, there was nothing in place,' recalls Joanne Blacklock, building cleaning manager at Belbclean. 'The cleaners and caretakers were out on their own. People never saw anyone. You can imagine why standards were so poor. There was no direction and they did not know what was expected of them. You had principals who were frustrated because schools were so unclean.
'Trade unions weren't very happy either. They were asking why all the training and development was going to the white-collar staff. And that was the mentality. There was an aloofness between the educationalists and the cleaning staff.'
While cleaning was the responsibility of school principals, they did not actively manage it. Belb employed the cleaners, but the principals paid for them out of devolved school budgets and were expected to provide the line management. Instead, there was usually no proper supervision of quality, methods, stock use or work schedules. This meant that, in one instance, a cleaner had just 20 minutes actual work to do each day, but was paid for three hours, while another cleaner had four hours work to do for the same three hours pay. The outcome was poor productivity from the first cleaner and poor quality from the second.
One of the first tasks facing Belbclean was to establish fairer work schedules. These were based on benchmarking the amount of time it should take to clean an area, according to how many stairs it contained, what type of floors there were and what use it was put to. This helped to demonstrate to staff, who were all transferred to Belbclean, that a fresh start was being made.
'Staff had been unsure, a bit apprehensive about Belbclean,' recalls Blacklock. 'But we were able to bring them in. The union was very helpful because it recognised that the work had not been distributed fairly.'
For the first time, too, cleaning staff knew what they were expected to do and how to do it. Floor cleaning machines, which had been gathering dust in cupboards because no one had told staff how to use them, could now be used. Cleaning standards and stock control both improved with closer supervision in place. For example, one cleaner had assumed that the buffing cloths attached to machines had to be thrown away and replaced as soon as they looked dirty, when they actually needed to be washed.
But attitudes also had to change among the teaching staff and principals. 'If it didn't smell [of bleach], it wasn't clean,' was the approach of some teachers, explains Blacklock. While this view had to be challenged, the unhappiness about cleaning standards was often justified, and contributed in some instances to low teacher morale and fast staff turnover.
Children's behaviour, too, had to be modified, for the improvements to be sustained. A pilot programme was started at Belfast's Orangefield High School whose renowned old boys include George Best, Van Morrison and Brian Keenan where one class of older children was identified as a particular problem. 'They were very unruly, and probably carrying out most of the vandalism in the school, pulling down the fire extinguishers, kicking cola cans around,' says Blacklock. 'So we looked to reward good behaviour in class by giving children odd jobs around school with the caretaker. The head teacher would allow them out of class to go with the caretaker to paint things and so on.'
The children were even taken on training courses for caretakers or building supervisors as they are now called. 'These were children difficult to get into school, but they never missed a training session,' says Blacklock. The outcome was not just, as intended, to reduce vandalism and misuse of fire extinguishers. The children who went on the training courses now protect the school from vandalism and challenge bad behaviour by other children. They also know how to use fire extinguishers if there is a real fire. Some of those children now want to work as building supervisors.
'It became obvious that they enjoyed the vocational training, and damage to school property decreased,' says Eileen Ferguson, their class teacher at Orangefield. 'The training provided by Belbclean gave lending a hand a sense of worth to the pupils and, as the course went on, parents could see potential job prospects ahead.' The success of this programme means that Belbclean intends to extend this approach next year to other schools with serious vandalism problems.
If school cleaning remains an often forgotten public service, it has, nonetheless, become more important. 'In the past, principals never really worried about cleaning standards,' explains Blacklock. But changing population patterns mean that there is over-capacity in many schools and strong competition for children. Feedback from parents to head teachers illustrated that poor quality of school cleaning sometimes encouraged them to opt for another school.
Ironically, though, despite its successes, Belbclean is entering difficult times. All of Northern Ireland's five education and library boards are in financial crisis, claiming they have been given insufficient funds by the province's Department of Education (a claim disputed by the department), with Belfast having particular difficulties. Services are being cut, with smaller budgets for many schools. Some might opt to reduce their cleaning spending, either by cutting the number of cleaners' hours or by privatising the service. However, when some schools did this before, it increased net costs, according to Belbclean.
Other problems are coming. There is a major programme of new school building, financed under public-private partnerships, which will give the cleaning work to the consortium building the schools. And under the reorganisation of public services in Northern Ireland, Belb and the other four ELBs will probably be replaced with four strategic partnerships responsible for cleaning and other services, which will not correspond geographically to the existing boards.
So Belbclean, recognising that its main sources of income might be reduced or even completely lost, is looking to diversify. Having earlier this year won Investors in People accreditation, it recognises that it has the opportunity to take on a wider training role. It is now training cleaning staff at Queen's University and negotiating with a Belfast college and health trusts to provide training services for them.
But the hope from people who understand the cleaning trade is that Belbclean can survive the threats facing it and continue its excellent work. Mike Sweeney, the recently retired chief executive of the British Institute of Cleaning Science, was one of Belbclean's referees for the Public Servants of the Year Awards.
He says: 'Belbclean has done a fantastic job of getting the professionalism of its cleaning force right up. Cleaners are often forgotten: they work after everybody else has gone home. By putting in a proper training scheme with national accreditation, providing staff with uniforms and giving them their own newsletter, it has brought the image right up. The major factor in that success has been the recognition of the needs of the army of cleaners who do the job.'