They deserve a medal

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Traditionally described as `unsung heroes', cleaners, `lollipop ladies', dinner supervisors and caretakers are some of the unglamorous, poorly paid staff without whom schools would be unable to function. But some are now receiving recognition at the very highest level

For every outstanding school or inspirational headteacher who has turned around a struggling institution, there is an army of overlooked but essential staff who rarely share the credit.

They are the lollipop men and women, caretakers, dinnerladies and dinnermen, cleaners, lunchtime supervisors and welfare officers who are invisible to many, but essential to the fabric of school life. They ensure that pupils get to school safely and that the building is open, warm and welcoming when they arrive. They do the things that parents care about the most: they protect and promote their children's wellbeing throughout the day. Simply put, schools could not operate without them.

That is certainly how Carol Jewitt, headteacher of St Joseph's RC Primary School in North Shields, north Tyneside, feels about Dorothy "Dot" Thompson, who has been a lollipop lady at the same crossing for 39 years.

"I'm glad my mother didn't call me something like Esmeralda or Penelope," says Mrs Thompson, 65. "Then people wouldn't be able to call me `Dot the Lollipop'. That is what they all call me around here."

It was 1971 when Mrs Thompson first got to grips with a lollipop. "I started on the Tuesday and was paid on the Thursday," she remembers. "Five pounds for the two days' work."

The salaries have not improved much over the years, but that is unlikely to deter community spirited people such as Ms Thompson. School crossing patrols, as they are now known, typically earn pound;6.38 an hour, with salaries peaking at about pound;7.50.

As most patrols operate for just half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon - to coincide with school opening and closing times - that equates to pound;30 to pound;40 a week.

"They really are the original unsung heroes," says James Gibson from Road Safety GB. "They are out there in all weathers, seeing children get to and from school safely, and they rarely complain. They are not in it for the money - a great deal is done on goodwill."

Although the shift work and poor pay is having a negative impact on recruitment, according to Mr Gibson, many patrols simply love the job. Young pupils have been known to phone Ms Thompson at home to declare their love for her. And in 1977, when Ms Thompson scooped second prize in a nationwide lollipop lady competition, pupils wrote to the judges about why she should win. One seven-year-old stated that he had said a prayer, thanking God for making Dot.

As well as being dedicated to the children's safety - she has only had three days off in almost 40 years - Ms Thompson's work does not stop at helping pupils cross the road.

She has reclaimed St Joseph's overgrown garden, which is now filled with flowers and vegetables - twice winning North Tyneside's Schools in Bloom competition.

When she is not gardening, Ms Thompson sweeps the entire school, sorts out the rubbish, helps with the nursery children and lugs compost for the school garden around on her bicycle.

In 2008, Ms Thompson was awarded an MBE in the New Year's Honours List. The letter from Buckingham Palace recommending her for the medal came as something of a suprise: "I thought the council had started sending their letters in white envelopes instead of brown," she laughs.

Fellow lollipop lady Anne Conway, who has manned the crossing outside St Anne's RC Primary School in Solihull in the West Midlands for 39 years, also received an MBE last year.

But her job satisfaction doesn't come from awards: "It is like being part of one big family," she says. "I love seeing my grandson and all the other children to school safely and then chatting to the parents, some of whom I helped to cross when they were children. I will keep going as long as I can." Ms Conway gets the odd cold but hasn't been to her GP in over 20 years.

Many of these dedicated workers started their jobs on a casual basis, but have ended up making a long career out of them. Joyce Fann started working as a dinner lady at Farnborough Road Junior School in Southport when her daughter was a nine-year-old pupil. Her daughter is now 55.

Today, Ms Fann leads a team of nine welfare staff who supervise pupils in the canteen and the playground. If anyone is off, she finds replacements or steps in herself.

She also fishes pupils out of the toilet areas or the medical room to ensure they get their fill of fresh air during lunch breaks. But her proudest moment was when she saved a boy's life 20 years ago. He had been running with a giant gobstopper sweet in his mouth when he suddenly began choking. "I flung across the playground. He was blue when I got there," she says. "I gave him an almighty wallop on the back and the gobstopper shot out across the playground. The hospital said it had scraped all the skin off his throat but he was alright."

She received a bouquet, chocolates and a note of thanks from the boy and his parents. "It is a lovely letter," she says. "It is a bit crumpled and worn, but I have still got it and read it from time to time."

Her day-to-day work is usually less dramatic. She looks after the pupils and welfare staff, most of whom call her mother. She rarely comes across a problem she cannot handle.

Ms Fann only has to raise a finger and a misbehaving pupil goes to stand by the wall of their own accord; they invariably come to apologise afterwards. "I don't put up with any nonsense. They know they can't go too far with me," she says.

That said, pupils frequently come and throw their arms around her, and she is always ready with "a little hug and a chat" if they are upset.

Adrian Antell, the head, describes Ms Fann as "old school" and utterly loved by the whole school community - something that became evident when she, too, won an honour from the Queen last year, an MBE. She hides it under her bed for safekeeping.

But not all school staff will receive such prestigious recognition. Cleaners are perhaps the most invisible, tirelessly working behind the scenes to make the school fit for learning.

Often arriving once everyone else has left, it is easy to take their hard work for granted. But it is hard to miss Pearl Turner. She has been a cleaner at Rosehill Infant School in Derby for almost 30 years, 26 of which she spent as a lunchtime supervisor as well.

Every year she writes to local businesses asking for donations towards the school's summer fair, and has secured annual donations of pound;100 from Rolls- Royce, plus sporting tickets that can be raffled and toys for the playground.

Now 63, Ms Turner went to Rosehill as a child and returned as a supervisor when her daughter started at the school. "I do all that a mum does," she says. "It is like an extended family. I treat the children like they are mine."

She misses interacting with the pupils, but still enjoys cleaning. "It is satisfying to know what a classroom looked like when I walked in and what it looks like when I walk out, especially over Christmas when there is wool from decorations all over the place," she says.

Caretakers perhaps perform an even more crucial role, ensuring the overall maintenance and safety of a school. Technically, Phil Lewtas's main job is to open and close St Mark's School in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales, and makes sure it is safe before the pupils arrive.

But in practice he does so much more, says John Palmer, the acting head. "He comes in far earlier than he should and leaves a lot later. Finding out how much overtime he's done is like getting blood out of a stone. He always takes the initiative and can usually be found up a ladder somewhere, clearing gutters."

As well as keeping the building and grounds immaculate, Mr Lewtas is heavily involved in everything the school does and knows the names of all 130 pupils and their parents. He always goes the extra mile, Mr Palmer says.

So when the deputy head fell ill, he took over the after-school football club. And when there was a Christmas concert, he carried 80-odd chairs into the hall and back again - all in the middle of the day when he should have been at home.

Mr Lewtas stacks shelves at Tesco on Friday and Saturday nights to supplement his earnings. But when a pipe burst at the school because of the cold, he came straight in on Saturday morning to sort it out before he had even been to bed.

"He is a pretty special person," Mr Palmer says. "The pupils have fun with him but he also commands respect. He told me that it is the first job he has had where he feels truly valued. It's true: we value him deeply here."

Being at the centre of a school that is at the heart of its community is a privilege, says Mr Lewtas. "I try to be as helpful as possible and keep a sense of humour. It is the best job I have ever had. The school has become part of my life, part of me."

Mr Lewtas is largely his own boss. He decides what jobs need doing and when, although he remains on call 247. When the burglar alarm went off at 3am recently, he was first on the scene, and he keeps his phone with him at all times in case there is a problem.

His only regret is that the job consists of just 30 hours' work a week. He is in school at 6.30am for three hours, returning at 3pm to shut up shop and help his wife, who is a cleaner at the school. In 2008, he won a local "unsung hero" award, following a nomination from the head and glowing endorsements from pupils.

"I was speechless," he says of the award, which was announced in assembly. "Seeing the kids' faces made it all a bit special. I was quite emotional knowing my peers and the pupils had voted for me."

Graham Armstrong receives a similar buzz from the 87 pupils at Dee Banks Special School in Chester, who all suffer from severe learning difficulties andor disabilities. Every morning, the 65-year-old site supervisor is at the main gate, sharing a laugh and a joke with the pupils and their parents as they arrive.

When needed, he is in the classrooms, letting the pupils use his leaf clearing machine or showing them how to nail pieces of wood together. One of his main tasks is to check the school's hydrotherapy pool three times a day. It is crucial that it is kept at 32 degC; any colder and disabled pupils might be at risk of hypothermia.

Having worked for British Telecom for 30 years, he is more than capable of doing basic gas and electrical work at the school, which includes testing all 600 of its electrical items each year.

But the thing he is "a bit proud of" is helping to build the school's new light and sensory room. "They (the children) can listen to relaxing music and watch the bubble tubes change colour," he says. "It is quite something seeing the smiles on their faces when they are concentrating on something in there."

The room has since been named after Mr Armstrong in recognition of his outstanding contribution. Without it, the money for the facility would not have stretched far enough.

In a tough economic climate where workers in many sectors are bemoaning pay freezes, yet are still receiving bonuses, the ability to go the extra mile makes these school stalwarts really stand out.

Caretaker Melvin Walter used to start work at 8am but now opens the buildings at 5.45am to make way for all the pre-school clubs. If there is a dance, quiz or community event on, he won't lock up until well after midnight. He has spent most of his adult life as caretaker at Norton College, North Yorkshire, having joined 38 years ago.

He, too, was surprised to receive a letter from the palace last year, announcing his MBE. "I couldn't understand it," he says. "I had to take it to the headteacher and ask what it was all about."

Des MacPhee, the college business manager, says it is nothing more than he deserves. "We are all over the moon that we have someone of his calibre and commitment working here," he says. "Everyone knows him locally as someone who is extremely approachable, friendly and trustworthy."

That could be said of so many of those working behind the scenes at schools. Most are unwilling to retire, but when they do it will be difficult to fill their shoes.

But Dot the Lollipop, like so many other dedicated school and community workers, isn't going anywhere. "I will be here till I'm 100," laughs Ms Thompson. "Or 99 at least."

In memory of Kitty Drury

(May 7, 1931 - January 26, 2010)

Kitty Drury was determined to keep on manning her crossing in Peterborough, despite having cancer. Over the 44 years she worked as a lollipop lady, the 78-year-old helped generations of pupils safely cross the road at Queen's Drive Infant School.

"She was an incredibly dedicated lady," says Dianne Jenkins, her daughter. "She was even working on the day she got renal failure."

Mrs Drury never sat down to a full Christmas dinner with her family; she would set off on her bike, delivering meals to the elderly who she had met on her patrols. She would also buy prams or beds for hard-pressed families.

"She always put others above herself," Mrs Jenkins says. "She was a very headstrong, determined lady. For her, being a lollipop lady was not just a job, it was a vocation."

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