It’s a bitterly cold, wintry day at Ladywood Primary School, but its dinner ladies are still out on the picket line.
Meanwhile, pupils have been standing outside the local ASDA raising money for strikers’ teas and coffees.
They’ve raised £8. That’s solidarity. And there’s solidarity too in the homemade cakes being dropped off by parents.
This, after all, is Grimethorpe, the Yorkshire village where the community spirit was so strong during the miners’ strike that a film, Brassed Off, was written about it.
Now the former pit village is standing up for its dinner ladies too.
“In the morning, as they come in, the kids hug us and tell us well done,” says Bernie Ritson, 62, who works three or four different jobs each day, including being a dinner lady and cleaning at Ladywood.
“We’re all here because we love our jobs.”
The strike at Ladywood Primary School began 10 weeks ago when nine dinner ladies – with more than 100 years service between them – were told they were being made redundant.
Like schools across the country, Ladywood is facing vicious cuts from central government. But the local community is determined these low-paid workers will not pay the price.
Even Anne Scargill, co-founder of Women Against Pit Closures, now 80, has come to support the strikers.
“I’m really proud of you,” she tells the women. “Don’t let the b***ards grind you down.”
Yvonne Mallinson, 55, says she was “shell-shocked” by the news.
“We’ve all been here for years,” she says. “People were crying. These are our jobs. They thought because we were dinner ladies we might just go quietly but they were wrong.”
Lunchtime supervisor jobs are part of the essential fabric of low-paid work in a community like Grimethorpe where secure work is hard to come by.
“It might seem like a small job, but for most of us, it’s one of a few jobs we have to do to get enough hours to live on,” Yvonne says.
“We’re part of the community and kids tell us things they wouldn’t tell a teacher. We talk to them, look out for them, give them a cuddle. We’ve watched some of the parents grow up too.”
Yvonne says staff were told teaching assistants were going to take over the dinner ladies’ duties – despite there being fewer of them.
One of these TAs says: “Basically, they were telling me to do someone else’s job which was never going to happen. Now they’re saying that they’re going to make one TA and a higher-level TA redundant too.
“I think the head underestimated the dinner ladies. This is a strong community and we’re a tough lot.
“We’re a mining community, we look after each other and we know that if we let this go it won’t just be our dinner ladies who are losing their jobs. It will happen in other schools too. We had to make a stand.”
The school says, “It is disappointing that staff have felt it necessary to make public comments” and that it’s “facing a significant budget shortfall” for 2019/20.
“We’ve reached the point where we are unable to continue to operate within our financial budget and as a consequence we’ve had to review our staffing structure.”
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request submitted by trade union Unison which shows the school has spent £2,170 training the school dog, George, has not gone down well.
“I think it is an insult to the dinner ladies that have been there for generations that they are spending thousands training the head teacher’s dog,” says Jordan Stapleton, area organiser for Unison.
Dinner ladies at Ladywood are paid around £2,000 to £2,500 a year.
“As TAs we all offered to cut an hour from our own hours to see if we could save the money that way but the school didn’t listen,” says one of the TAs.
Another, Laura Oxley, 30, nods. “A lot of us have cars, we can look for work elsewhere but the dinner ladies all walk here,” she says. “They need these jobs.”
June Field, 63, a dinner lady for 10 years, is on strike with her daughter Jane Bunney, 39, who works with her.
“We love those kids and look after them like we would our own,” June says. “We’re family here, literally. I work with my daughter so if the jobs go that’s two of us in the same family out of work.”
The women pause as they hear the children coming out to play. “It’s 12.15 – this is when we’re normally starting work,” Yvonne says quietly.
Christine Clarke, 50, has been a dinner lady at Ladywood for 23 years and now sees her own eight-year-old grandson in the playground.
“He says when he grows up he’s going to get a job here and give us all our jobs back,” she says.
Until then, the dinner ladies of Grimethorpe need all our support.