Education writer James McEnaney talks to Mark Waters, the head janitor at Stromness Academy, about a late career change, wanting to make a difference for young people, and helping to protect some rare sheep.

The first time I meet Mark Waters he is heading through the library at Stromness Academy; the second time is outside St Magnus Cathedral, surrounded by meticulously maintained classic cars and motorbikes. On both occasions I get the same impression, which is of the type of person who sees a problem and sets about fixing it.

Waters grew up in Orkney and, after leaving school, became a joiner, moving between a few different companies until he was running major construction jobs in the archipelago.

“Site foreman, that's what I was there,” he tells me. “So yeah quite a big undertaking. You know, big jobs - up to three and four million pounds. Hospital projects, school projects, Heriot Watt [University] projects. Loads of different stuff like that.”

For more than a decade he was working “on and off” at Stromness Academy. He oversaw the construction of a new music block, offices and extensions, as well as upgrades to roofs, windows and external cladding.

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And then, in a stroke of good luck for all concerned, his most recent period at the school coincided with a job opening for a new head janitor.

“When the job came up there were a few members of staff who said to me I should go for it,” says Waters. “I just thought it’s maybe time to get out the joining work before I’m too crippled.”

“It was the right time, and normally jobs like this come up and it’s not very appealing to a lot of people. Folk think: ‘Oh, just a janny, blah blah blah.’ But I think, because of my background, I’ve brought a lot of different things to the school.”

There’s no disputing that point from the teachers I speak to, who clearly regard the 51-year-old not just as an important part of the school, but also as the right person for this school. In fact, the way they tell it, he wasn’t told that he should apply for the job, but rather than he simply had to.

Now that he is on board, he has a very clear view of his role: “My main aim is to make the school better for the kids, that's what I'm trying to do.”

The Herald:

“So basically the day-to-day running in the school, I take care of that, and then I'm always doing projects that benefits the teachers and the school and the pupils.”

It isn’t just about maintenance – it’s about improvement. Whereas a teacher’s job is to worry about the learning that happens in the classrooms, a janitor’s job, according to Waters, is to make sure that the learning environment in those classrooms, and across the wider school, is as good as possible.

Switching to his native Orcadian, Waters said: “At the minute I'm building science screens so they can do experiments ahint it. So obviously I've got those skills that I can go and build frames, I can glaze them, I can finish them and varnish them and get them ready.

"So they're not actually taking anybody in from outside to do that. Everything's bespoke. Whatever they want I'll make it."

Waters added: “I guess the teachers are kind of like a client when I was on the construction site, you know what I mean? I had to make a bookcase for home economics, so I basically just go there wi a 3D pad, dae the drawing of what they want, go away and make it."

And it’s not just inside the school, or even on the school grounds, that Waters's skills are proving so valuable. Last year, the head of home economics set up a trip to North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orcadian islands. The purpose of the visit was to help rebuild the sheep dyke, a vital and ancient construction which helps preserve the island’s unique, seaweed-eating sheep.

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An obviously valuable member of any team taking on such a task, Waters was asked to join the trip.

“She set it all up and she asked me if I would go along and do it with the kids. So I said yeah, fair enough – I’ve got a bit of knowledge about building stone dykes, so I was perfect there. I’d never been to North Ron in my life.”

The enthusiasm bubbles up in his voice as he goes on, and it’s so obvious that this late career change has more than paid off. Whether he realises it himself or not, this isn’t just about improving environments for pupils, teachers, or even rare sheep, and he’s not heading off to North Ronaldsay for days at a time because it’s part of the job.

There’s a brightness to his tone that, in my experience, only comes from people who are motivated, and energised, by the desire to help others.

“So what happens is the kids do all the cooking - they cook all the meals for at night time and then through the day we get a part of the walls to rebuild, and we just work there constant for the three days. You’re working to 9.30pm, 10pm at night and the kids just loved it.

“You had breakfast in the morning and you went and built for maybe three-and-a-half hours, then lunch, and then you’re back again, and then you had tea, and then most of the kids wanted to go back at night-time because it was gorgeous weather.

"It was brilliant.”