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Looking out for children

Three times a day, Mary Robinson is on duty for the boys and girls crossing to and from their primary school. Eleanor Caldwell joins her

At the wide T-junction linking Yorkhill Street with Haugh Road in Glasgow, school crossing patroller Mary Robinson welcomes a dry morning, although there is a chill wind blowing up from the Clyde.

Mary has little time to stand still as a steady stream of children and parents with buggies approach her on their way to Kelvinhaugh Primary school. This is a complex crossing and she has to keep her eyes open for children appearing from various directions, before seeing them across two roads. Most of the children are in groups, though some P1s and P2s race down the hill before coming to a sudden standstill at the kerb and wait to be helped across.

It is a dangerous corner with a number of hazards. Yorkhill Children's Hospital is less than a quarter of a mile away and ambulances pass at speed, sirens wailing. There is a fire station around the corner. Light industrial units in the neighbourhood create an even flow of small vans. But there is not a huge weight of cars on the school run as most of the pupils live within walking distance.

Mary, aged 41, has worked as lollipop lady for Kelvinhaugh Primary for three years and the children quickly learn her name. She has a daughter at the school and two sons at nearby Hillhead High. A scattering of secondary pupils cross the road with her every day as they take brothers and sisters to the primary school. "It's handy that I know some of the older kids through my sons," she says.

However, her attentions are less welcomed by some. As a couple of older pupils approach the kerb, Mary whispers: "These two come up every day but they always refuse to let me see them across. We have a duty to provide a crossing point for everyone if they want it, but I think they must be embarrassed."

Mary, far from being the stereotype granny figure, fits a very active life around her crossing duties. She is a trained gym coach and until recently took jumping jack classes for the infants up to four times a week. She regularly walks the half mile to Kelvin Hall to take part in classes as part of her own fitness regime and on other days between the end of her morning stint at 9.15am and start of the lunchtime hour at 11.55am she cycles to Scotstoun pool for a swim.

Within the city of Glasgow, there are 492 crossings manned three times a day during the week, although there are 60 long-term vacancies the council has been unable to fill. Recruitment is quite a problem in the current climate of low unemployment. Mary enjoys the work and feels it is fairly well rewarded at pound;5.18 per hour, pound;76 a week, with a retainer paid when school is out.

New recruits attend a two-and-a-half-hour training session and before starting work have a session with a patroller to get a practical taste for the job. They must undergo criminal checks and need to be fit and healthy, have good road sense and preferably some experience of working with children. Most patrollers live within the community where they work.

The average age of patrollers in Glasgow is 56 and they must retire by 75. It is particularly difficult to attract younger people, says the council's parking liaison officer Michael Brady, who is responsible for staffing.

Many prospective patrollers are put off by the salary having an adverse effect on any housing and social security benefits they might receive. Any special provision for crossing patrollers would set a precedent for a large number of other workers within social and care services in similar circumstances. Mr Brady says this is a nationwide bone of contention with the Government.

Glasgow sees a high turnover of patrollers, with about 100 in 2001. Emergency cover can be gleaned from various sources around the city, says Mr Brady. The city has a team of reserve and mobile patrollers who can go quickly to a crossing when needed; car park attendants can be called upon to change roles for the day; even road workers fall within the supply bank.

As the end of the school day approaches, Mary is back on duty at the crossing. She spent much of the afternoon helping at the school fair. It's a good way to get to know the teachers and have longer chats with the children, she says. As she waits for the bell to ring, a car draws up and the driver asks for directions. This is closely followed by a young man who also asks the way.

As the children stream along to the crossing, they all want to show off the toys they bought and won at the fair. "I think he'll maybe be in trouble, when he gets that home!" says Mary, pointing out one boy who is proudly manoeuvring his pound;1 bargain red toy go-kart across the street. She admires the painted faces and teases those who are taking home more than they brought. Throughout all the banter, the children wait politely at the side of the road.

By and large, drivers are considerate and stop and wait patiently behind the lollipop, says Mary. Any form of reckless or inconsiderate driving considered to be of potential danger to children crossing is an immediate police matter. One angry parent who revved his car engine and edged aggressively towards the crossing children was reported.

This afternoon is unusual as the children are leaving at different times after the fair. Some have gone early with mums and dads and others are straggling along later with large bags of toys.

The last boy looks surprised and pleased to see his lollipop lady. "How are you still here, Mary? I'm late today." She reassures him that she will always stay until all the boys and girls are away, before she and her daughter, who is waiting patiently, put the lollipop back in school and head home.

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