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School crossings: Let's not lose our lollipop people

Maria McCarthy / 07 September 2018

In the late 1940s 'lolliop people' became a friendly and familiar sight at school crossings across the UK - but where are they now?

An arm of a lollipop person holding out the stop sign at a school crossing

Lollipop people, or school crossing patrols (SCPs) as they are now known, have been around for many years. The first one was Mrs Hunt, who was appointed by Bath City Council in 1937 and worked outside Kingsmead School. The concept gained ground in the late 1940s and 'lolliop people' became a friendly and familiar sight across the UK.

There have been sartorial changes over the years. Initially patrols wore white coats and peaked hats and carried red torch signals which were later exchanged for black and white rectangles with 'Stop Children Crossing' on them. The round lollipop sign was introduced in the 1960s and the uniform changed to the familiar yellow coat in 1974. It now also includes a peaked hat with the option of headgear appropriate for particular religions such as a turban. 

Originally the police ran the School Crossing Patrol service but in 1974 it was transferred to local authorities and in 2000 SCPs were authorised to help adults as well as children cross the road. The law states that when a patrol raises their sign - even if they have not yet stepped out into the road - a driver must be prepared to stop. Once the patrol is on the road and displaying the sign drivers MUST stop and not proceed until the patrol and any accompanying children or adults have cleared the road. 

Disobeying the SCP's sign can mean three points on your licence and a fine of up to £1000. 

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Fewer lollipops to go round

The number of 'lollipop people' safeguarding our roads is sadly dropping. School Crossing Patrols are a discretionary rather than statutory service and over the past decade they have been facing cuts by cash-strapped councils.

'The form the cuts take can vary,' explains Richard Hall of Road Safety GB. 'For example, patrols that retire may not be replaced, or patrols are removed from sites where there are light-controlled crossings and so on.

‘Increasingly schools are urged to find ways of funding the service but they are understandably reluctant to do so as it will mean their budget for education is depleted.'

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Dr Rachel Lee, Policy and Research Co-ordinator at the charity Living Streets says, 'At Living Streets we are concerned about the effect that the reduction of SCPs is having on road safety and also the way it influences decisions about how children make the journey to school.

‘The government realises the importance of tacking childhood obesity and one obvious way in which children can become more active is by walking to and from school rather than being driven. This benefits everyone, as not only does cutting back on the school run reduce congestion and air pollution, it also normalises walking and encourages children to see exercise as an integral part of their day.

‘However, one of the most significant barriers for children walking to school is crossing the road safely. Parents with older children who could potentially walk to school will be reassured by the presence of an SCP who will watch out for the children at the most dangerous part of their journey, namely crossing the road. They know that the SCP is both authorised to stop traffic and trained not to lead children across until it is completely safe.

‘And parents and carers who are accompanying children on their walk to school very much appreciate SCPs as well, particularly if they are pushing a buggy or have younger children with them and need extra time to cross the road.'

Richard Hall adds, 'Studies have shown that children who use the roads actively by walking to school with carers develop better road safety skills than those who are driven, because whilst walking the adults teach how to deal with traffic as a pedestrian by example. That means that when they travel to school and elsewhere independently as teenagers they will be better able to keep themselves safe.'

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Save our lollipop people

SCP cuts have prompted campaigns to save the school crossing patrols, with some success. For example, 2017 saw Liverpool council reverse the decision to cut crossing patrols outside schools after protests by schools, parents and children.

'People power can make a difference at a local level,' says Richard Hall. 'Councillors know that the people involved in the campaign are their constituents and they face losing votes if they upset them by cutting patrols. It's a front-line service protecting vulnerable road users and as such should be treated with the importance it deserves.

‘And even if a campaign doesn't fully succeed in the sense that the SCP is retained, it can prompt changes such as the installation of a zebra or pelican crossing at certain sites.'

'Lollipop rage' and 'Stop means Stop' campaigns

An ongoing challenge for SCPs is aggression from impatient drivers, nicknamed 'lollipop rage'. While the majority of drivers obey the sign, SCPs sometimes experience motorists shouting abuse, revving their engines, sounding horns or driving around the patrol when there are people still on the crossing.

Following one of their SCPs being hit by a car when on duty, Pembrokeshire County Council launched a month-long 'Stop means Stop' campaign to remind motorists that they have a legal responsibility to halt when directed to and that by ignoring the patrol they are putting children's lives at risk. Similar campaigns have been run in Manchester, Cambridgeshire, Hackney and Hampshire.

'We all lead busy lives,' says Dr Rachel Lee, 'but no matter how much of a hurry you are in it's important to show patience and allow children to get to school safely.'

Motorists should look out for signs or flashing amber lights which warn of a School Crossing Patrol ahead and be prepared to stop.

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The role of the 'lollipop person' in the community

'The work is generally carried out by retired people, parents and those juggling it with other jobs such as school meal assistants,' says Richard Hall.

'The pay is around £8.50-£10hr so it's not the sort of job that will make anyone rich, but many school crossing patrols speak very warmly about their work.

'It may mean venturing out in all weathers and sometimes dealing with aggressive motorists, but knowing they are fulfilling a valuable role in the community and feeling appreciated by children, parents and the school counts for a lot.'

Watch: Margaret Cattle, The UK's longest-serving lollipop lady retires after 45 years

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