In praise of school dinner ladies

Do you want custard with that?

The French are revolting. They’ve been revolting for a while about the pensions review but the good dinner ladies of Marseille are on the war path. They’ve been on the march, protesting about higher pension ages and almost half the schools and nurseries in the port town are without staff. Imagine it – hundreds of dinner ladies in flapping white overalls marching down the streets brandishing ladles and chanting. I’d love this to happen in England but I don’t imagine it will.

I spend some of my time working with our school dinner ladies so I’d like to speak up for these most maligned of creatures, because I doubt if anyone else will. Dinner lady is a good catch-all name for both servery assistants who prepare and serve the food and the midday supervisors who keep an eye on hundreds of small munching mouths and supervise outdoor and indoor play.

Let’s start with the servery assistants. A few years ago they were happily warming up turkey twizzlers and defrosting frozen meals when Saint Jamie Oliver decided that children were worth more than crappy TV dinners. Suddenly servery assistants who were used to opening packets of food had to cook and prepare food from fresh under the watchful eye of a cook/chef. They haul out the tables and benches, set the places and then have to serve the food and make sure that fussy eaters take a balanced plate. After service they are in charge of washing up and cleaning and placing orders. They are employed by the catering company, not by the school or LA (generally speaking) and are usually paid minimum wage, rarely London living wage if working in the city, and their hours fall bang smack in the middle of the day, term time only of course. The French dinner ladies complain that their work is noisy, messy and heavy and it is.

What about the midday supervisors? These ladies are usually employed directly by the school and are therefore school staff members. If the school is good, they’ll be made to feel part of that staff and will be supported in managing behaviour and play leadership but often they are the forgotten ones as the teachers drop off their classes of in the dining hall and flee to the staff room (I know, I often used to do that myself). Meanwhile the middays supervise the hall full of screaming children/ lairy teenagers/ sobbing infants ensuring that everyone eats nicely, leaves the table when asked to, finishes their food before the end of the school day etc. And we complain if they sometimes bellow.

Meanwhile in a feat of careful timetabling, other middays are outside ensuring that everyone plays nicely and no one escapes over the fence. They sort out arguments, mop bleeding knees and lead the skipping before reporting back to the teachers at the end of play. Again, all this during term time only and in the middle of the day. Many schools employ their middays as teaching assistants so they bolt down a meal at either 11.30 or 2pm and are back in the classroom supporting teachers before and after their lunch shifts, again for a lowly wage.

So let’s make this hug a dinner lady month and may we never forget how important they are to our education system.


7 Responses to In praise of school dinner ladies

  1. guerrillamum says:

    I still remember my school dinner ladies, with a lot of affection. I can remember all of their names, and the ones at primary school were all there the whole time that I was there. These ladies were very much a part of the school staff, and they would often follow the children out into the playground, to manage lunch time play and to generally keep order – which they did come hell or high water. These matriarchs of the playground were every bit as much authority figures as the teachers. At lunch time, at least in the dinner halls, they ruled!

    Today’s dinner ladies are up against it, compared to the ones of my childhood, and they don’t get a quarter of the support that they got.

    Just my tuppence worth ….

  2. J.G.Harston says:

    Diner ladies, teaching assistant’s. Hmmm. Bad day? 😉

    • citizenr says:

      Mea culpa. I shall sit reading my dictionary all afternoon. Sadly I’m human 😦

    • Francesca says:

      Dinner Ladies, teaching assistants – you missed out the extra ‘n’ and there’s no apostrophe in ‘assistants’ as that denotes possession. 😦 – I’m a teaching assistant by the way.

      • Sian Rowland says:

        My bad. Thanks goodness for helpful TAs! If you’ve read my post about how bad I am at typing that might give you a clue to the occasional typos.

  3. guerrillamum says:

    Citizenr – ‘I love the phrase ‘matriarchs of the playground.’

    Ooooh but they weeeere! You didn’t mess with them. Not only that, so keen was Mrs G to tidy up after lunch, that if you didn’t eat quickly enough or hang on to your plate, she would swipe it before you could say ‘knife and fork!’

    There were no picky eaters in our school… not with Mrs G around. It was eat up fast or go hungry…

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