A POPULAR caretaker, who is described as “the heart of the school”, is retiring after 36 years.

Di Cotton will leave St John’s Church of England Primary School at the end of the summer term – nearly four decades after she took on the role in 1977.

At the time, it was unusual for women to become caretakers, but Mrs Cotton said she was persuaded by the headteacher at the time.

The 69-year-old, from Applegarth Close, Cranbourne, said: “The head said ‘go for it.’ There were all men in those days but she said ‘you are quite capable’.”

Several of her five children attended the school at the time, and one of her great-granddaughters, five-year-old Jazmine Bolton, is at the school now.

Mrs Cotton has worked hard to ensure St John’s, in Kingsmill Road, Cranbourne, Basingstoke, is safe, well-maintained and sparkling clean.

Headteacher Hayley Clayton said: “All who meet or work with Mrs Cotton know that she is so much more to the school community than simply their caretaker. She is the heart of the school.

“Her care, warmth, patience and willingness to serve all who surround her has helped make St John’s a special place to be.”

She added: “Mrs Cotton is an amazing lady who has served the school and community with 100 per cent commitment since the day I met her, as I know she had for many years before I arrived.

“She is an incredibly special lady whom I, and everyone at St John’s, will miss beyond words. We hope she’ll be back to visit us regularly.”

Mrs Cotton, a grandmother-of-14 and great-grandmother-of-four, said she will be sad to leave, adding: “I have enjoyed working in the school with the children and seeing them come back with their own children. And the staff have been like a family to me. They have been so supportive.

“I am sad to be leaving. This school has been like my family. They are all lovely people.”

Pupils at St John’s have shown their appreciation of Mrs Cotton by writing letters to The Queen, Prime Minister and Basingstoke MP Maria Miller, to let them know how special she is.

Ashley Piper, a Year 6 pupil, said: “We are really sorry Mrs Cotton is leaving. She has worked extremely hard and we will all miss her very much.”