Education: We're the lubricant that turns the cogs: You won't find them in the classroom, yet they play a big part in shaping a school's character. Sarah Strickland profiles the unsung heroes

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Jane Berthoud, headmaster's secretary at Trinity School, Croydon.

I HAVE been with this school for 30 years. I'm always so busy I've never really had time to look for another job. I worked in the commercial world previously, but found the school environment less competitive, not so tooth and claw.

Times change and now I have a wordprocessor instead of a typewriter, three full- time secretaries and two receptionists. They are super and it's great fun working together. We're the lubricant that makes the cogs go round. Without us life here would not run quite so smoothly.

Every day is different, you never know what is going to happen - you name it, we get it. It's hectic and the buck stops here. The first thing is opening the post. People write in asking questions like, 'Do you know where so-and-so is, he left about 1948 and we'd like to have a reunion?' We then have to look through the records, which go back to the beginning of the century.

I don't communicate with pupils as much as I used to - they probably just see me as 'that funny lady in the office'. I hear all the old excuses for lateness, like 'Mum didn't wake me in time', and I have to tell them off sometimes if they're making too much noise or whipping round in the revolving doors. I go and straighten their collars and ties when they have their photos taken. You always get the scallywags who look like Just William.

We cope with all sorts of requests, from nail varnish remover to booking a room. Some pupils ask if we can look after stray animals they've found: we've had a kitten and a dog, but I've drawn the line at snakes. I see them when they're ill, too; boys have fainted and been sick in front of me. You just have to get on with it. When I asked one little chap who was ill where his mother was, he looked at me very seriously and said: 'I'm very sorry, she's decapitated.' I think he meant incapacitated. I get called 'sir' of course and 'mum', too, occasionally.

Pupils come to me with problems, but I probably hear more of those sort of things from parents. Some just want an ear and you happen to be there; one woman rang up in tears and asked if she could come and talk to me about her marriage. They sometimes turn up unannounced if they're really distressed. I get boys and mums in tears if they have to leave. It is sad when things go wrong, but you do have to keep some distance.

I'm usually the first person any visitor to the school will meet, so I have to be welcoming and friendly. I used to show prospective parents around; I remember one couple asked if we still had capital punishment.

The school office is a place for chat. The staff come with all manner of questions - we don't let on that we sometimes think they are daft questions. I put my 'engaged' signal on if things are really getting hectic, but they usually ignore it. Once a teacher who was involved with the cadet force brought in a parcel and said: 'I don't like the look of this, I think it's a bomb.' He put it on my desk and walked out]

I've made a few minor changes in the school, such as the flower pots, and having trophies engraved and displayed. I'll miss the social contact with people when I have to go, and the way we continually think about the future. We are always working to the clock, too - and I'm sure I eat more quickly because I work in a school]

(Photograph omitted)