'The resilience, energy and optimism of some of my pupils at Christmas humbles me; I don't know if I could cope walking a day in their shoes'

Although a daily reality of life in our community, Christmas time amplifies the desperate predicaments of many of my pupils, says one leading headteacher

Siobhan Collingwood

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I think we are the luckiest people in the world, working in primary schools on the build up to Christmas.

Yes, I know that sentiment would make many teachers feel slightly nauseous and some downright furious; but I love the fact that Christmas in schools amplifies the peaks and troughs of the roller coaster ride that is teaching in 21st-century Britain.

This week, I bounced into a multi-agency meeting bursting with Christmas spirit, having just left my office where a profoundly deaf four-year-old had thrown himself onto my knee with open arms, dressed as an angel with silver bandanna, white smock and huge feathery wings.

When he had finished telling me how excited he was about our school nativity dress rehearsal, he left just as abruptly, leaving a comical and ever so cute trail of white feathers behind him.

None of the other professionals in the meeting were from primary schools and smiled warmly but warily as I told them about my recent encounter with an angel.

My school serves a very disadvantaged community, my staff and I work at the sharp end of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

On a daily basis we feed the whole school for breakfast, when needed we give extra food to mums at risk of passing out, who are doing without food in order to keep the kids fed.

We will give food parcel tokens to desperate families and find emergency payments for families whose benefit sanctions mean that they have no money for the electric meter. Although a daily reality of life in our community, all of those scenarios have a more desperate feel to them at this time of the year.

Financial pressures build for families determined that their child's Christmas stocking will have as many high-end electrical goods as their contemporaries, consequently racking up substantial debts in the many places like Bright House that have moved into the vacuum created by the closure of recognised high street shops.

The huge rates of interest that they sign up to mean that by concentrating on the joy of Christmas morning they are building further misery for the New Year.

It might sound irresponsible, but if you are a young single mum who feels abandoned and less worthy than others, who is constantly being told by your abusive ex-partner that you are going to lose your children because you are so useless; then not being able to buy that shiny new mobile phone or games console feels like an affirmation of all of your worst fears.

Each year we have a school christmas dinner and it is a wonderful day with good freshly prepared food, christmas crackers, decorated tables and Michael Buble crooning in the background.

A few years ago whilst eating with a table of mixed age children, they were interrogating me about Christmas in my house.

I told them about my family's passed down recipes for roast potatoes, turkey, Irish ham, pigs in blankets, seasoning and gravy, about christmas puddings stubbornly refusing to burn until half a bottle of brandy has doused them, about drinks in the village pub with all of our friends and neighbours, and about family party games and bumper rounds of present opening.

When I had finished and they were satisfied with the detail they had drawn from me, I asked one of the Year 6 boys about his Christmas, at which point his vicarious enjoyment of christmas dissipated.

Quietly he told me that he wouldn't get any presents, that mum would be sleeping after working a late shift and so he would have to keep the little ones quiet while he tried to stop granny falling down the stairs as she drank too much. That the best he could hope for was that his violent dad would stay away and would not be a kick off.

Needless to say he and his brothers haunted my Christmas dinner that year, like one of Scrooge's ghosts.

Ever since that Christmas I have been determined that no child in our school will face an empty Christmas stocking on Christmas morning, so every year we draw up a list of families who may not be able to provide presents for their children and the local churches provide a bag of presents for each family on the list. Last year we gave out 20 bags, this year it will be even more.

Every year at this time, we are forced to assist in finding emergency accommodation for families for whom the mould and damp on the walls has begun to affect the health of their children, or whose landlords have found better tenants.

There are always at least a further two families whose woes will have reached such a crisis point that child protection thresholds may have been exceeded and the children removed: as alcohol-fuelled domestic violence escalates or depression paralyses parents or family disfunction reaches boiling point.

Yet despite these ever-growing pressures, these children, alongside their peers bounce into school for Christmas parties, excitedly mount the bus to go to the pantomime, proudly present their christmas jumpers on Christmas jumper day and practice enthusiastically for the Christmas nativity.

They queue happily for their visit to Father Christmas and proudly present their craft projects inspired by John Lewis's Buster the Boxer advert, on which they have worked for hours together creating amazingly detailed and complex 3D works of art.

Their resilience, energy and optimism humbles me because I don't know if I could cope, walking a day in their shoes.

The huge range of activities on our final two week Christmas programme will leave the staff exhausted and drained, but not one of them would reduce their workload around these events one iota, because our work has a moral imperative that many colleagues do not have. We know how much it means to our children.

One of our children being interviewed recently on the radio about how our school supports families and children, told the reporter that when he was sad and things were bad, he could come to school and that for the whole six hours  he was there he would be happy.

I had to hide my face at that point because none of us, school or his parents want him to have to ration his happiness in that way, but we know that for a lot of our children, it is their reality.

I am certain that we will do all that we can to ensure that those six hours a day are as full of Christmas joy and peace as we can posssibly create.

This wrap around care for children in poverty is the only way that we can ease the pressure for long enough to allow them to focus on aspirations for a brighter future that only a rounded and thorough education can give them.

We immerse them in cultural experiences, rigorous expectations and joy in their success, while helping to alleviate the many barriers that they face in their lives.

It is a privilege to do so, it helps us to ignore the slight annoyance created by comments and diktats from those so far removed from their reality.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the parting shots of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, who seemingly blamed schools in the north for lack of educational attainment and even Brexit, without once acknowledging the scourge of poverty on lives lived in the economic wastelands that exist there and are so manifestly misunderstood by the elite in our country.

So I will watch our Christmas play with pride as angels leave a trail of feathers and glitter, as stars dance, camels sulk, shepherds pull off their tea towel headdresses and Mary drops Baby Jesus on his head again.

I will fill up as the choir sings simple songs beautifully and take the tissue that the parents pass to me, reminding them how few and precious these Christmases with their young children are and thank them for the enormous privilege that they afford my staff and I by choosing to entrust their children to us on a daily basis.

At the end of the term we will brush up the glitter, switch off the lights, and head home to share christmas with our own families, keeping one eye on the ghosts of Christmas present that will haunt our Christmas festivities.  

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School​

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