Why school lunchtime supervisors are unsung heroes

The lunchtime supervisor's job ranges from encouraging hesitant diners to spotting safeguarding issues, says Emma Turner

Lunchtime supervisors not only watch over school pupils but they also keep them under control when it's raining outside, says Emma Turner

It’s raining. You have 30 rambunctious and overexcited seven-year-olds to entertain for an hour, and only a dusty box of mismatched Lego, a Cluedo set with the lead piping missing, half a deck of cards and a whistle with which to do it. 

Sounds like some kind of nightmare interview scenario, but it is, in fact, part of one of the most underrated and underappreciated jobs in schools: that of the lunchtime supervisor.

Gone are the days of referring to this hardy bunch of dedicated souls as “dinner ladies” – although the job of serving up slices of cornflake cake with the consistency of tarmac does still need doing in the often almost impenetrably humid and always slightly too fragrant dinner hall. 

Lunchtime supervisors never flinch

These lunchtime staff never flinch when asked by wobbly-lipped and greasy-fingered early-years children to open their yoghurt tubes. They can cut up 60 fish fingers in record time, while simultaneously encouraging hesitant young diners to try the sweetcorn fritters or to “just have a taste” of cowboy pie or Mexican bean casserole. They’re the same cheerful souls who daily return the hall to its pre-lunchtime pristine glory, picking up discarded crisp packets, half-eaten ham wraps and dropped chips.

These staff members are integral to the smooth running of the school day, and yet rarely feature in thank-yous or receive much recognition for their contributions. Often not party to the wider training and support that other staff receive, they nevertheless retain order in the playground and dinner hall daily, ensuring that all are fed and watered and administering first aid to those who have fallen foul of the concrete.

Clad in tabards and regulation polo shirts, and armed only with a whistle, a blue paper towel and, on occasions, a walkie-talkie, these downtime champs ensure that teachers and support staff can safely hand over their classes and gulp a drink, grab a hurried sandwich or prep for their clubs or afternoon sessions.

Providing safe spaces for children

Yes, our lunchtime supervisors enable the day to be punctuated by play and by refreshment. They are the eyes and ears of the playground, and their hands can be a safe space for those who find the playground overwhelming. They’re also frequently on the frontline of our safeguarding teams, as our children eat and play. They notice who’s hungry, whose lunches are missing, who’s lonely, angry or withdrawn and who might be deliberately isolating themselves. 

They provide a smile for those who are feeling a little lost or overwhelmed and a little TLC for those who find themselves bumped or bruised. They dole out tissues, towels and the occasional telling off, as they move seamlessly from nurse to referee to waiting staff and back again. They are often a stealth team with their own codes and encrypted systems for the rotation of “turns on the climbing frame”, of which class is due to go on the trim trail, who genuinely has art club and whose turn it is on the hallowed football pitch. They are meteorological experts, too, seemingly knowing exactly when rainfall is just a shower and when it is likely to turn into a squealing free-for-all, as everyone dashes for cover. 

Their wet-playtime cover is also underappreciated. They have no learning objectives, very little equipment and never truly know whether the children are telling the truth when they say they are allowed to use the whiteboard. These are not exactly the ideal conditions for entertaining children for an hour in a confined space, but these champions rise to the occasion every time. By way of thank you, they often get only a tight smile and an ill-concealed grimace when teachers return to their rooms.

Outdoor guardians

But some schools have recognised the essential and excellent work these outdoor guardians perform, and have invested in toys, games and equipment for both indoor and outdoor playtimes, and ensured that their lunchtime supervisors are truly valued and exceptionally highly trained. These are the places where lunchtime supervisors are recognised for the essential work they do in embedding the school’s values and ethos, and supporting children through play, as well as providing a smiling face and a helping hand. 

Such is the positive impact that a lunchtime supervisor can have, that when you realise you have a good one, you hold on to them and celebrate them with the same kind of delight you see on the faces of the children when they realise it’s chip day. 

So, next time you wander through the hall at the end of lunchtime and they’re there with the giant Y-shaped brushes, sweeping up the quavery and frazzly detritus of another lunchtime, be sure to give them a smile and thank them for the great job they’re doing. Oh, and remember to tell them about the whiteboard. 

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust, Leicestershire. She tweets as @Emma_Turner75 

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