Marion arrives at our Reception hatch: she is 85-years-old, completely deaf and leaning heavily on a zimmer frame, from which hang numerous bags. She waits patiently for attention and proceeds to start to hand over the bags to our office staff, chortling as she does so, telling us that she thinks these coats should help somebody to feel warm. She hands over two gilets, a pair of jeans, a furry hat and size one shoes that look brand new.
She tells us that she has been to a charity shop and has bought them for our children. She has no relationship to any of the children in school and tells us that she is very happy to help children because she and her husband were both teachers. She lives alone and can’t hear a word that we are saying to her because she is stone deaf. She breaks into another contagious chuckle, as she tells us that she is here after seeing a report on the news before Christmas, about the reality of child poverty and how we deal with these issues in our school.
The report showed two schools struggling to deal with hungry, tired children whose working parents were struggling to make ends meet and discussed with a local doctor the rising problem of illnesses of malnutrition, including rickets. The news report spread like wildfire across social media and sparked a massive local response. We were flooded with donations of food, clothing and toys that transformed our school hall into an aid depot, in which we were kept incredibly busy, sorting, classifying and distributing the many donations as they arrived.
One lady from Amsterdam sent £1,000-worth of food to school to be made into Christmas dinner hampers, another elderly gentleman arrived with his 2.4kg turkey, which was too big for his Christmas dinner, to be handed to a deserving family, the traveller community arrived with £300 worth of groceries on the first day and a mass of new shoes, socks, scarves and hats the next. Another lady gave her holiday home to a family for a weekend break and decorated it with a Christmas tree stocked with presents. A local entertainer and his wife laid on a Christmas party with bowling, food and soft play access for 100 children.
Families in poverty
During the final week of term, one child who was helping me to carry masses of newly arrived food through to the hall looked at me with tears in his eyes and said: “This is amazing, people really love us kids. You and all these people just want to help.”
As he helped me to stack the newly arrived boxes, he went on to tell me: “Last night when I got home, we had had a Christmas food hamper delivered. I cried and jumped up and down when I saw it. I’ve never seen so much food, ever!” There was approximately £50 worth of food that had been delivered to his home and the quantity had completely overwhelmed him. I couldn’t make eye contact with anybody until he left the room at which point my colleague and I hugged and cried.
Having empty cupboards at home is a reality of life for too many of the children that we work with. Their parents water a pint of milk down with another pint of water and have pennies worth of credit left on their electricity meter that means they have to choose between whether to wash clothes, feed the children or heat their damp, rental accommodation. The houses in which they live are covered in mould and the children’s health suffers as a result. The parents have built up debt while waiting for changes to universal credit to kick in and some of them have less income coming in as a result of the changes. Their bills are rising, they have little job security and they are finding life incredibly difficult to deal with. Many parents are tired, depressed and have lost hope. The realities of their lives are so wearing that their life expectancy can be almost twenty years less than that of other children who may live within a 10-mile radius of them.
Reduce food wastage
My community and business manager works with several local food projects to reduce food wastage. One of the projects receives tons of perfectly good food that is disposed of by supermarkets – while children are in schools with hungry tummies unable to concentrate, pallets of food are being thrown away. The reasons can be as insignificant as a few unsymmetrical tomatoes: often, it’s not just the packet but the whole pallet that’s discarded. Shelf loads of a premium butter are discarded because the silver foil packaging has a small Christmas tree on it.
We have joined a food cooperative that seeks to make use of this food. We place an order for food from the project, families pay £3 per week to join our cooperative and then they come along to our Fair Share Café, picking up food and recipe tips. We also have a volunteer who picks up bread and fresh produce close to the end of its shelf life from a local supermarket – this is displayed in our hall and parents come and help themselves.
During the final week of the December term, a public meeting was organised and hundreds of people crammed into a room together to make some long-term plans to address the issues of poverty in our local area. It felt like an immensely positive movement of people, acting together as a real community and was incredibly uplifting to participate in. In our school community, we have started four community group projects run by parents, third-sector groups, police, medical practitioners and City Council officials, all of whom want to start to work together to make things work better for our children and their families.
Outpouring of kindness
Our school has been at the centre of an outpouring of kindness that has been a hugely affirming experience for staff, parents and children alike – we all work together to make our children’s lives more enriched and fulfilling.
For many years, it had felt that we were struggling to educate and protect our vulnerable children in a lone battle to achieve rising expectations as they struggle with more challenges, while support services and resources decrease.
Now, we know that we have many friends and supporters and hope that together we can make a difference. As I finish writing this, my office staff have just opened a handwritten note from our friend Marion, out of which drops a £40 donation. I can almost hear her throaty chuckle as she places it in the envelope.
Marion and the hundreds of people like her who have shown such generosity to complete strangers and their children, restore my faith in humanity and affirm the words of my deputy headteacher, who stands looking at today’s donations, shaking her head and saying: “There really are many more good people than bad in this world, aren’t there?”
Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, winner of the Creative School of the Year category at the 2017 Tes Schools Awards.