As we go to press a storm has descended on Barrowford, Lancs and shows no sign of letting up. Yes, I’m talking about the media storm surrounding a letter sent out from the head teacher of Barrowford Primary School, Rachel Tomlinson, to her Year 6 leavers.
The letter, addressed to the individual pupils, reminded the children that while exam results were important they didn’t paint the whole picture. Rachel wanted her pupils to know that everything they did was important – from skipping or playing a musical instrument to being a good friend or caring sibling.
One parent shared the letter on Facebook and within hours it went viral, spreading across the world as far as China and the USA. The next day, as the children arrived at Barrowford Primary, it was announced that Michael Gove was no longer Education Secretary and Twitter went wild.
Hundreds of people suggested that head teacher Rachel should take Gove’s place. What was going on? The letter was no big deal to Barrowford Primary as it was typical of the encouragement they give their pupils every day but as reactions to the letter poured in from around the world it became obvious that to thousands of people the letter was something extraordinary.
Barrowford Primary is extraordinary. Its staff believe that each child’s basic needs must be met if they are to thrive academically; food, warmth, security and love.
Yes, it sounds obvious but ensuring those needs are met takes massive commitment from a school. It means taking time to know how each child is feeling at the beginning of the day. The school does this by encouraging the children to score their level of happiness for the day and think about what will help to get their scores up.
If there are problems then the school will do what it can to sort them out because they know the children will find it easier to concentrate on schoolwork if they are not worrying about other things.
The teachers have to be committed to never shouting at a child. One little boy I met there told me how he used to get shouted at all the time in his old school. His mum asked for a place at the school when his previous school suggested medication to stop his constant fidgeting, tapping and humming. They were delighted to accept this amazingly bright boy and made his Asperger’s something to celebrate. He now practises meditation at school instead of the suggested medication.
Commitment also means teachers who will travel on Saturdays and Sundays to see inspirational speakers on education, without the view that they are sacrificing their spare time.
Then there’s the commitment to feeding the children (beyond the school lunch) which is something that I’m proud to say I have had the opportunity to help with.
I first contacted Barrowford Primary over two years ago after the local paper reported that many children in the Pendle area were arriving at school with only a slice of bread or a couple of biscuits in their lunch boxes.
As a chef who had worked in the homes of the super rich where children ate like kings it really disturbed me that this could be happening in the place where I lived.
A telephone number for the Grassroots foodbank in Nelson was included in the article. When I called Grassroots my first question was: “Why are these children not receiving free school meals?”
The simple answer was that many of the parents were working and therefore their children were not entitled. At the time 700,000 children were living in poverty and were not entitled to a free lunch.
Through Grassroots I sent a letter out to every Pendle primary school asking if they were seeing evidence of children with inadequate packed lunches. The response was shocking.
Governors were funding extra school meals, teachers were buying sandwiches for pupils with their own money and some schools said they knew parents were taking their children home at lunchtime because they could not afford to send them to school with a lunch. These
children were going hungry.
Barrowford Primary responded to my letter with an invitation to meet their nurture group. Here, they made sure all the children had an adequate school lunch but also provided a free breakfast for those unable to afford it and an afternoon snack in case parents were struggling to provide an adequate evening meal.
I began providing cereals through Grassroots and asked Ged-the-lovelyhusband if we could take over the funding of a weekly delivery of bread, butter, milk, jam and juice for the children and tea, coffee and biscuits for the adult nurture group where parents can meet, chat and find help and support if needed.
As the food bank became overstretched, a Barrowford church, St Thomas’s, began collecting cereals for me and have managed to continue doing so for nearly two years. They have also
helped me to put a mini food bank into the school at the end of each term.
Most people are astonished that the pretty and affluent village of Barrowford can have families at its school who struggle to feed themselves, but remember that many of the families travel from the less affluent surrounding area because of Barrowford Primary’s reputation as a school that is willing to take children who may prove challenging to other schools. Many of these parents are working on contracts with erratic hours and no income security.
Areas of Lancashire, including Pendle, have the highest proportion of underweight and malnourished children in the country and while our government acknowledges that children must be properly nourished to achieve academically, many pupils across the area still go hungry.
The first thing to be sacrificed in the family food budget is fruit and vegetables as no one is going to buy a lettuce if they can get a pack of chicken drumsticks for the same price. This is one of the other problems we’re trying to tackle at Barrowford Primary.
If the TV cameras had arrived at the school 24 hours earlier, they would have seen the fruit and veg stalls set up in the playground piled high with free produce for the families to take home.
FareShare rescue food from suppliers and wholesalers which would otherwise be used as animal feed or compost and donate the food to the needy. This week they stacked my car to groaning point with so much produce that I thought the suspension would go but it made me very happy to see children walking home munching on apricots, cherries and strawberries.
Rachel and her Year 6 teacher, Amy, have been interviewed on everything from Radio 4 Woman’s Hour to Breakfast TV and the BBC News and they have been asked repeatedly if the letter was an excuse for poor SATs results. Barrowford Primary has in fact achieved its best ever results this year with some children attaining exceptional levels.
Every newspaper has covered the story but some of the papers have also tried to put a negative spin on the story by reporting that the school was rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted two years ago.
Rachel has been head teacher for six years and within four had taken the school from ‘Satisfactory’ to ‘Good’ while steadily attracting a larger intake until she now has almost a hundred more children than when she arrived at the school. So meeting the basic needs must be working.
Many think it’s time for another Ofsted inspection but then, as we know, tests never paint the whole picture. Anyone who has visited Barrowford Primary and met its incredible staff and pupils will know that it truly is an extraordinary place. As the school motto says, Learn to Love, Love to Learn. Try putting a negative spin on that.