Jayne Dowle: Cuts to lollipop ladies a matter of life and death

If you have ever stood outside a primary school at half-past three in the afternoon, you will know exactly why we need our lollipop ladies – and lollipop men, of course. When those school gates open, it’s bedlam. Kids running here, kids running there, and all the time lorries and cars thundering past. School crossing patrols, to give these life-savers their official title, are as vital at school as head teachers and dinner ladies.

But inevitably, as public sector cuts begin to bite, they are among the first in the firing line.

It looks like Suffolk is losing them all. In Dorset, Gwynedd, Southport they are under threat. In Barnsley alone, 28 school crossing patrols have been deemed “no longer required”.

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In some cases, the justification is because the school has moved, or a pedestrian crossing or traffic-calming measures have been put in place. But it seems that at least three crossing patrols will be scrapped altogether, and four vacant posts could also be left unfilled.

We’re hardly talking big money jobs here. It is reported that this will save the sum of £50,000 a year, roughly equivalent to the annual salary of someone fairly high up, in say, IT, or accounts.

I accept that every one of us must face the prospect of losing some essential services. And to be honest, our local council appears to be doing its best to make sure that the swingeing public spending cuts will be as fair as possible across its workforce. Even the chief executive and senior managers are taking a five per cent pay cut for two years, a reported saving of £58,000.

But when we hear of the millions upon millions that have been ploughed into council “non-jobs” these past few years, it really makes you wonder where local government priorities lie. Islington in North London could find £32,000 pro rata for a “walking co-ordinator”, or there was £13,000 a year going for the lucky person who bagged the job as a “bouncy castle attendant” in Angus. If you fancied moving to leafy Windsor, you could become a “roller disco coach” for £7.60 an hour, “making sure that children can skate properly and that everyone skates safely”. As far as I am aware, we don’t have much call for a roller disco coach in Barnsley, but it does beg the question of what is more important – teaching children how to stand upright on a pair of roller-skates, or teaching children how to cross the road without getting mown down by a truck?

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I knew this was coming. A few months ago, waiting to pick up the children from school, I had a really sad conversation with a man with a clip-board.

Now, I can never resist a man with a clip-board, so I went up and asked him what he was doing. He told me that he worked in highways, and this was his last day at work before he took (enforced) early retirement. His final job was to assess whether we really needed our school crossing patrol.

So this poor man, who looked so woebegone standing there in the rain in his suit, had the unenviable task of counting kids and cars as his farewell to a lifetime in local government. I told him to be in no doubt that we needed our lollipop lady. When she was off sick a few years back, and the relief patrol didn’t always turn up, it was chaos.

Selfish drivers seem to assume that children going to school are nothing more than a nuisance, holding up their terribly urgent journeys to nowhere that important. Without a crossing patrol striding into the road to halt them in their tracks for a few seconds, there is nothing to stop them careering past the school at 40 miles an hour.

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And, I have to point out, plenty of public money has been spent on campaigns to encourage children to walk to school instead of riding around in their parents’ cars. My own eight-year-old often walks himself down the hill in the morning. He confidently negotiates the minor crossing challenges on the way, but when it comes to getting across the “big main road” he needs the lollipop lady to help. And as a parent, although I am all for encouraging him to be independent, I wouldn’t feel happy allowing him to make his own way to school without knowing she was there to shepherd him safely past those thundering lorries.

What is the point in encouraging kids to walk to school on one hand, then making it unsafe for them to do so on the other?

In the grand scheme of things, a few lollipop ladies losing their jobs in a town like Barnsley might not seem like a major issue to a government intent on saving billions in public spending. But to parents, to kids and to these valued members of the community themselves, who face their futures without a job, it is. And what is more, on a foggy morning or a gloomy winter afternoon, it could be the difference between life and death for a child. My child. Your child. What price can anybody put on that?