What's Life Like As A Lollipop Lady?

What's Life Like As A Lollipop Lady?
Donna in full garb with her usual smile

"There's one little boy, he doesn't go to my school, but he drives past with his grandad. Then they go round the block and drive past again so he can just wave out the window to me." Like a lot of lollipop ladies — or school patrol crossing officer, if you will — Jean has a tight bond with her local community.

She spends her mornings and afternoons at a crossing outside Shoreditch Park. On the other side of Hackney in Stoke Newington, is one of her peers: the effervescent Donna. This morning it's gloriously sunny as Donna strolls out into the middle of the road, traffic commanding sign in hand, helping people get from one side of the busy Albion Road to the other.

Donna has an encyclopaedic knowledge of names, she greets most of the kids personally as they cross with a smile. It's not just the kids she chats to, but their parents, some cyclists, motorists and bus drivers too. "I feel like I'm a people person," Donna cheerfully says, "so I think this is a job that suits me perfectly. It's nice and the community is great."

On a day like today when the weather is beautiful, it's easy to understand why they enjoy being out there, but they're both no less positive when the traditional British cold and rain kick in. "It's still enjoyable," says Jean, "because then you can have a laugh and a joke with the people that come along, they always feel sorry for you. I always say, 'I'm probably the driest person out here because I've got everything covered.' So the bad weather doesn't phase me."

Donna speaks of similar experiences. "The way I see it, when the weather's not great or I might not even be in a good mood, that's the hour when everyone is coming so I've got to get them smiling. It's fun, everyone's quite nice when it's bad weather."

Everyone's quite nice when it's bad weather.

Not that they're not nice in other situations. Well nearly everyone at least. At one point a cyclist charges through when Donna's stopped traffic and yells stop at them. Later, an impatient motorist honks as people cross the road. Apparently the honking's reasonably rare but Donna says a rogue cyclist speeds through nearly "every day".

"There's always one that thinks they don't need to stop, but that [she points to the sign] means you too. When people are halfway they think it's okay and they think no one's there, but I'm still out there." She does clarify that these cyclists are the exception to the rule.

Jean's had similar experiences: "Cyclists, they tend to whizz through, they've got a mind of their own. But I know most of the cyclists now, so they tend to be OK with me." Working in the same site at the same time, you see the same people; over time, it seems, the trust and respect grows.

Jean, after a shift

Negotiating with others on the road has always been a key part of the role. It's actually the reason behind the iconic black and yellow stripes on their lollipop-shaped traffic ruling signs. The black was added so that the officers could write down number-plates of any motorists who they'd had difficulty with. It's an aspect of the job that's now long gone, as the role changed over generations.

One of the major shifts in job description came in 2000. It's no longer just about helping schoolchildren cross; instead they help all pedestrians while they're on shift. Jean says this is an incredibly important part of the role because "you'd be surprised at the amount of adults that don't look. Sometimes they're worse than the kids because they're on their phones and they just walk straight out in the road. Or they cross diagonally, and I say 'use the crossing please because it's for your own safety.'"

Technically they're no longer called lollipop ladies, but school patrol crossing officers, but this hasn't quite caught on.

We wondered whether the role's name had changed over time too. Technically they're no longer called lollipop ladies, but school patrol crossing officers, but apparently this hasn't quite caught on. "Everybody knows lollipop lady, so the name just sticks." The one misbelief that name keeps fertile, is that it's a job for women. In Hackney the gender breakdown isn't so biased; about 40% are actually 'lollipop men'. Back in the 1950s many of the first in the role were men; the recruitment drive stated it was looking for 'active retired gentlemen'.

They might be an everyday part of the morning for many in this country but Jean recently had a reminder that lollipop ladies are still an alien concept for a lot of people. "I had a man from Germany the other day [and when she stopped traffic for him] he said: 'for me? I've never seen one of you before'. I said I'm here all the time and he replied 'that's fantastic, what a lovely job.'"

On the other hand some members of society are all too comfortable with traffic stopping for pedestrians as Donna once found out. "It was pretty quiet and then this pigeon literally just used the crossing." The bird didn't even need Donna's help to get across, it just nonchalantly marched on as Donna and a few teachers watched in awe.

Donna manages to see a lot of humour in the job, especially when she gets attacked by bees and wasps who just can't resist her uniform's neon glow or her unerring smile. Jean talks about some of the more tender moments she's experienced. "It's nice when you see mums who were pregnant and now suddenly their kids are walking past me."

Even though the people we meet have such high job satisfaction, there are still positions available. The main barrier for people applying to the role is the awkward hours. Just one hour in the morning and another when school lets out in the afternoon. Some like Donna combine this with other jobs to make it work — she's a lunchtime supervisor — but it's often also done with studying.

Another blockade to filling positions is the suitability of candidates. There's a lot of responsibility inherent in the position, so they won't let just anyone do it. Even Donna — who won a runner-up prize in a recent competition — was initially rejected.

These awkward hours lead to one of the major misconceptions around the role, as most people think it's just pocket money for elderly people who've retired rather than an actual career. That'll come as news to one Hackney officer, who's only in his mid-20s.

London needs its lollipop ladies and men. Not only are they a vital part of the city's road safety team but they're a reliable part of people's days. Some might walk by them without noticing, but if you look up and watch for a bit, you'll see them put smiles on hundreds of people daily, come rain or shine.

Last Updated 14 July 2017