Our Girl Lollipop

Once upon a time, lollipop men and ladies all seemed to be rosy-cheeked grandparent types direct from Central Casting. Now Yummy Mummies are getting in on the act.

Once upon a time, lollipop men and ladies all seemed to be rosy-cheeked grandparent types direct from Central Casting. Now Yummy Mummies are getting in on the act. STEVEN RUSSELL meets Suffolk's newest and youngest crossing patrol recruit

“I DON'T feel like I've got two children now - I feel like I've got hundreds!” laughs Rebecca Love as she balances on a teeny-sized chair in the nursery classroom and gives what's effectively her end-of-term report.

It's about four months since she became the crossing patrol officer for Shotley primary school, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

“It's something that's been desperately needed for a long time, and I enjoy it,” says the 35-year-old. “It's a good way to start the day. Everyone's very friendly. The kids all call me Bec, and they're great. They say 'Have a good weekend' when they leave on a Friday.”


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Any cheeky monkeys?

“No. Haven't had one. Nothing. They're lovely. Brilliant. Every single child. I haven't had to tell anyone off. They know they're not allowed to move a muscle until I say it's safe. They all say 'Thank you'.”

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The view from her “office” is pretty impressive. The school lies halfway down a hill and the pavement outside offers a wonderful vista of the lower reaches of the River Orwell.

Not so encouraging - and it has to be said, even if it upsets a few folk - is the behaviour of some drivers using Main Road. Rebecca's first week saw a major scare that could so easily have ended in tragedy.

A large vehicle coming down the hill only just managed to stop in time.

“I stood there. You've seen what I wear; I'm absolutely fluorescent from head to toe. How you would miss me I don't know. But the vehicle left it right to the last minute to brake and I had to say to the child - who was then stepping out, so if I hadn't had been there . . . - I shouted to her to keep back, and the vehicle stopped so I could touch the windscreen. That close.

“He was looking right through me, right past me - probably thinking of something else. I suppose I would have leapt at the last moment, but I think he just left his braking too late. It was scary. When you think there are small children crossing that road who often don't look . . .”

She took the number, reported it, and the county council had a word with the driver's employer. But it left a psychological mark for a while. “For the first week I walked home and my legs were just shaking.”

Thankfully, there hasn't been anything as bad since.

Rebecca's recruitment is part of a campaign to improve safety around the school, which has 200 or so pupils.

Shotley primary is working on a school travel plan. It's part of a Government initiative to persuade parents to find a more sustainable way of getting their children to class - encouraging walking, cycling, and improving facilities. Footpaths have been laid, and new cycle sheds are due.

Mary Jarrett, Suffolk County Council's crossing patrol manager, explains: “One of the issues raised was the lack of a safe crossing, so we looked at the site again and decided that common sense should prevail: the idea being to encourage parents who are close by to walk their children to school; to encourage the older children to make that journey on their own; and, if parents do feel they need to drive their children to school, to park slightly further away and then do the final part by walking.”

There's the community centre up the hill, with its large car park, and a small estate round the corner where people could park before completing the journey on foot, Mary adds.

Shotley has had a lollipop person in the past - more than a decade ago, probably - but the qualifying criteria changed. With the majority of children being accompanied to school, the patrol was scrapped. “But circumstances change and, if you're trying to encourage children to walk, this is a good way to do it.”

The picturesque view can mask the fact the school is on a pretty awful stretch, with a sharp bend at the bottom of the hill about 100 metres away.

“For a long, long time I'd thought we needed someone,” says Rebecca, who has lived in Shotley for nearly six years after moving from Ipswich. “It's a horrid road; a really blind corner on that bend.” It could, she points out, get even worse if homes are built on the former HMS Ganges site at Shotley Gate.

Signs have been put up to warn drivers that “20's Plenty”, and flashing amber lights should be installed soon. They will be turned on when children arrive in the mornings and again at going-home time.

You never know when a child is going to run out, says Rebecca, who used to work as a care assistant and in nursing, so she asks drivers everywhere to slow down.

“It would be very useful if you could get in, somewhere in your article, that the '20' signs are there for a reason.” She reckons she's yet to see anyone keeping to a strict 20mph. “People just don't seem to think it's necessary. But it's not as if it's for very long.

“My heart goes to my mouth when I stand up on my point and see adults pushing buggies right on that corner, crossing there. If something flies round that bend, that's it.”

Suffolk has 97 crossing patrol sites and is actively seeking to fill 15 or 20 vacancies. (There are particular shortages in the Ipswich area.) Officials suspect growing levels of traffic and abusive motorists are partly to blame.

Bet Rebecca hasn't encountered any rude drivers on the peaceful peninsula . . .

“Oh yes. On three occasions I've had this car come flying through really fast. I can't think where they're going that warrants speeding through at 60. One day I had a load of people waiting. I came out into the road. This car screeched to a halt and I thought 'Oh no.' I told the children to wait there, and went down and tapped on the window.

“I kindly reminded them that it was actually 20mph. This man of about 80 and his wife started shouting that they 'were ******* doing 20.' As I walked away and started crossing the children, they revved the engine while I stood with my back to them - which is something you'd expect from a teenager, isn't it? Some boy racer. Then they sped off, once I'd crossed everyone.”

Tactics for dealing with abusive road-users are covered during training. Rebecca also has mobile phone numbers for both her supervisor and Mary, so she can report problems or seek advice. Should any motorist want to take matters further, she can give them a card explaining how to contact her boss.

Speeding drivers aren't the only hazard confronting schools nationwide. Congestion affects visibility around many entrances. Rebecca half-jokes that in the mornings it can be like the Wacky Races, with people reversing, turning, and stopping in the road.

“You wouldn't believe the number of U-turns I've seen: U-turns, reversing out into traffic. I never noticed that before. I can't believe I haven't seen two cars hit each other or bump into each other.

“This morning, three reversed out at the same time (off the grass banks, and from the layby). It was like they were synchronised. It was amazing they didn't hit anything.

“I had to move someone on the other day. I don't want any confrontation, but I couldn't believe my eyes. This car parked across the bottom of the (school) driveway, with the engine running.

“I said 'Can I help you? I really don't think you should be sat here.' She said 'Oh, it's all right. My daughter's just gone to pick my son up. We won't be long.' I said 'I'm afraid you're going to have to move on. I can't let you sit there, on the yellow zig-zag.'

“People think it's only going to be two minutes, three minutes, but children have got to get their book bag and get out of the classroom - it's 10 minutes at least.”

Despite the niggles, Suffolk's newest lollipop lady enjoys her job.

“I thought it was important and said 'I've got to take my children to school in the morning and afternoon; why not combine the two?' It's no hardship - in fact, it's a great way to start the day. It's so picturesque out here. So beautiful. And everyone is so friendly and appreciative. It gives you a nice feeling.”

Daughter Esme is 11 and now at high school. Elliot is eight and thrilled by his mum's high profile. “He thinks it's cool. He loves being first in. I don't know what the attraction is. When I was little, the last thing I wanted to do was to get to school early!”

Downsides?

Well, she did start in January. “A very good way to break you in,” Rebecca winces. “I did wonder, as I was standing there in a blizzard, 'What am I doing?' I got through four lip-salves because my lips were getting so chapped!”

Not much protection out on the hill.

“Absolutely freezing. I had six layers on and was still cold. We're provided with body-warmers, fleeces, absolutely everything, but the wind just bites. But just when you're thinking 'I can't feel any part of my body,' it's time to finish. It's not too bad: half an hour or three quarters of an hour soon goes.”

(blob) Anyone keen to find out about working as a crossing patrol officer for Suffolk County Council can contact Mary Jarrett on 01473 265006. Crossing officers get £5.85 an hour and there is a package of benefits.

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