The government says school funding is at record levels, but Bellfield Junior School in Northfield, Birmingham, still finds it hard to make ends meet. Pastoral care is one of the big items on its budget, discovers the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby - care for children and sometimes for their families too.
Bellfield's head teacher, Nigel Attwood is doubled up over his desk, giggling and chortling while his deputy, Claire du Toit, stands over him, hand on hip as she tries to smother her own mirth and look cross.
"It wasn't me, it was the elf!" Nigel grins, delighted with a prank he has successfully pulled off in Claire's classroom. She's laughing openly now and lifts her hands to me in a gesture of mock helplessness.
"I tell you," she says good-naturedly, "it's a good job we can laugh here, isn't it?"
With its budgetary problems, temperamental boiler, draughty windows and many pupils in financial or family crisis, you might not imagine Bellfield Junior School could create such a happy space. Yet the staff here constantly recharge the atmosphere with their high spirits and sense of fun - and never more so than at Christmas time.
The children have already enjoyed Christmas Jumper Day, Pancakes with Santa, Silly Songs and a Special Christmas Dinner and now Year 5 are about to perform a nativity and carol concert to their families.
"It's a time of year when we can all be together in school and enjoy being together," explains Nigel, as we hurriedly drink coffee in his office before the bell rings. "As much as Christmas is a time for families, we also find it's a time for us to be a family in school too - it's about being a community."
Bellfield is located in Northfield, a deprived area of Birmingham, where 60% of the 315 pupils are classed as disadvantaged.
"We know our parents struggle," adds Claire. "And Christmas is a difficult time because there's high expectations for people to provide something special, and it's very difficult for them to do that. So, every way we can support them by doing some of it in school, well, we do!"
In the corridor, tea-towelled, antlered, winged or crown-sporting children scuff their plimsolls on the carpet and jiggle in excited anticipation as they wait their turn to file into the hall, some desperately trying to catch their parents' attention, others staring fixedly at the floor, solemnly mouthing their lines. A visiting toddler, breaking free from his mother's hand, catches sight of his big brother who is dressed as a sheep, and slumps star-struck on to the carpet, scattering his crisps.
Just behind the line-up, the light goes on in the Rainbow Room. In fact, the light is pretty much always on in the Rainbow Room. It's a sort of therapy room, adorned with sea life murals where a soothing soundscape of twittering birds comforts children in difficulty who need time out to talk. And there are always children here who need to talk.
When I visit in October, pastoral care manager, Jamie Neadle, and learning mentor Lorraine Harvey admit they are overwhelmed by the number of children who come to see them and by the seriousness of their problems. And mention the 60% of pupils here who receive "pupil premium", a grant given by the government to a school for each disadvantaged child it educates, and Jamie, who served 30 years as a plain talking policeman, will give you short shrift.
"Don't say 'pupil premium'," he snaps. "Say it as it is - free school meals. And what we're really saying is 60% of our parents can't afford to give their children a hot dinner."
Over a quarter of children at Bellfield have special educational needs and disabilities and over a third are on the vulnerable register. Bellfield spends about £114,000 a year - that's about 7.5% of its annual budget - on pastoral care to help children overcome problems, so that they can concentrate better on learning.
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"The problems we see in here range from emotional to pure mental health issues to violent and aggressive, destructive behaviours and to self-harming," says Jamie. "Oh, we're talking seven and eight-year-olds self-harming," he explains, when he sees my astonished look. "And they're not just playing at it, believe me, they're doing it for real."
Lorraine has picked up one of the soft toy puppets she uses to help children express themselves in therapy sessions and is absent-mindedly stroking its head with her thumb while she listens to her colleague. She's been working at Bellfield Junior school for 18 years and says, very quietly, that the situation has got so much worse.
"There are so many children coming to us throughout the day now that we actually have to turn children away." She focuses her eyes on the puppet.
A thin little girl in tears has been knocking repeatedly at the door while we are talking, complaining bitterly about being left out of a playground game.
"Not now," says Jamie firmly. "Go and find another adult. Go on - we're busy."
The child persists, rattling the door handle until Lorraine goes out to comfort her. Jamie confesses she's a child they are deeply concerned about and not because of alleged bullying at school. His hands are balled into fists as he talks.
"There are children in this school who have walked across bare boards this morning," he tells me, nodding his head at the little girl on the other side of the door, who is now cuddled up to Lorraine.
"Children with no breakfast in their stomachs because there's no food and no carpet at home. And people think we're making it up. We're not. This is Britain. Britain in the 21st Century."
Lorraine has now successfully despatched the distressed child back to class and she sits down heavily, sharing a despairing look with her colleague.
"Behaviour can be triggered by anything," she starts. "But obviously if a child is hungry, they are going to behave in a classroom in a way that's not acceptable."
She stares through the door into the empty corridor where the little girl had been standing.
"Some of our families are living in horrendous conditions," she sighs.
"Everything's gone up and they just can't cope with day-to-day living. I mean, a pair of decent school shoes is what, £40? So I think a lot of children are slipping through the net. There are just so many issues. And then we expect these children to come to school and function. Well, sorry, but how can they do that?"
At break time there are two distinct lines queuing to get into the hall - free toast on the right, or for those lucky few with a pound in their pocket, bacon butties or sausage sandwiches on the left. The line on the right snakes out of the hall door.
Jamie asks me to remember that most of the children's parents are working yet still rely on handouts.
"We've got to ask the question as a society, they're working and yet we have to give them extra money to survive. I mean, they're trying. You can't point the finger and say they're not trying. They're struggling."
And with social and other support services stripped back to the core, the school now finds itself on the front line to deliver assistance, not just to the pupils but to their whole families. Parents regularly need debt counselling, help with parenting skills, or simply some emergency food shopping. It's not unheard of for head teacher Nigel Attwood to switch off his computer at the end of the school day and then to jump in his car to go to the supermarket, and to take supplies to a family in crisis, to make sure their children are fed through the weekend.
The school has also had to step in to pay gas and electricity bills for struggling families, while teachers have been approached by shame-faced parents needing help to provide Christmas dinner. At a parents' evening, two mothers tell me confidentially that during difficult family times, the Rainbow Room has often saved their sanity. Both independently describe the primary school's pastoral care service as a "lifeline".
Lorraine tells me that when she first started work at the school, 18 years ago, there was an educational social worker working beside her. But now, she and Jamie, neither of whom are trained psychologists, are completely on their own. When I ask her if she feels out of her depth sometimes, she shakes her head slowly and looks wearily at Jamie.
There's a very small pot of money within the pastoral budget to bring in specialised counsellors and educational psychologists.
"I don't think we are always the best placed people to be pushing for these children," Jamie admits. "But the systems aren't there. Children's services are a sham at the moment. We get frustrated with them but we know the pressure they're under and why they struggle to do the things we think they should do."
Another small, tear-stained face has appeared at the Rainbow Room's window and looks in hopefully. Jamie walks slowly towards the door.
"But somebody's got to keep pushing for these children," he says over his shoulder. "Somebody's got to keep pushing."
The four-and-a-half-day week
Emma Jane Kirby reported in June on Bellfield's decision to drop down to a four-and-a-half-day week.
It was feared that attendance might suffer as a result, but Nigel Attwood says attendance is now at its highest rate in 12 years.
Over the six months that I've been visiting Bellfield Junior School, there have been incidents that we cannot report for legal reasons. Last month, the receptionist who tots up attendance figures, alerted the pastoral team when she tried to contact the parents of a child with an unexplained absence from school. Alarmingly, the given telephone numbers proved to be unattributed or simply rang out.
"The families that resist our help we worry about," says Jamie. "Because then other services have to move in on an emergency basis, and that's never good."
Lorraine's eyes are unfocused when she talks about the children she suspects of being physically or sexually abused.
"We have sessions with them, we try to get them to talk," she says, "but unless they actually tell us, there's really nothing we can do." She's also concerned about parental drug and alcohol abuse, which she says always leaves children neglected.
We sit in silence for a moment. Jamie offers to switch on the soothing tweeting "dicky-birds" CD. The brightly coloured puppet slips from Lorraine's knee on to the floor.
Lorraine admits that she can't always sleep after a heavy day in the Rainbow Room. Often during the holidays, she says, she finds herself dialling Jamie's number for a chat. Jamie protests that he always slept peacefully when he worked as a police officer - there's no bravado in his voice when he says that policing was child's play next to his current job.
The thin little girl has reappeared at the door and squints at us anxiously through the glass. Lorraine gets up wearily.
But today it's celebration time and on stage now in the hall, Year 5 is belting out the Calypso carol while the shepherds and their flock sway self-consciously. Every child is word-perfect and completely focused on the performance. Those with speaking parts deliver their lines with evident pride and professionalism, ignoring interruptions from audience members' beeping mobile phones and younger siblings clamouring for juice or the toilet.
By the time they get to We Three Kings, any residual nerves have dissipated and each child is jubilant and sings joyfully. Their teachers watch them with genuine emotion and the applause is thunderous.
Nigel Attwood is grinning from ear to ear.
"We've done a lot of work with the children on resilience and aspirations," he shouts over the noise of scraping chairs as the hall is cleared. "And it looks like it's really paid off."
He pauses to congratulate an elated angel who is galloping back to class, still humming the Calypso carol under her breath.
"Some of our children have some really huge problems," Nigel reminds me. "But tell me, did that show when they were up on that stage? The children gave it everything they've got."
Since I began following Bellfield Juniors back in June, the school has had some glad tidings of its own. Although the BBC has not been fund-raising for the school and nor did Bellfield agree to take part in our programmes in the hope of receiving donations, nonetheless a number of concerned well-wishers have sent gifts of money, stationery, books and shoes, all of which have deeply touched head teacher Nigel Attwood and his deputy, Claire du Toit.
Last summer, Claire complained there were no whiteboard markers left in her classroom and that she couldn't order more until the new term and the new budget. The next day a jiffy bag of pens was pushed through the school's letter-box. Over the following weeks, several more packs arrived by post until Bellfield's supplies cupboard contained more than 700 pens. Cheques from £5 to £500 flooded in to help fix draughty windows, to fund school prizes and educational visits. And three huge consignments of shoes, sandals, trainers and wellies were sent from a shoe shop in the Channel Islands.
"If you could see the look on the children's faces when they get a brand-new pair of shoes or wellies," laughs Nigel. "The way they look after them and how they go skipping down the corridor!"
"It's such a total surprise to see how other people do things for you and it gives you faith in the world really," interjects Claire. "Everybody's looking out for everybody and we're not on our own."
There was a moment last month, though, when the school really felt it was sinking. After breakfast club one morning, the dinner ladies noticed that the floor in the dining hall was buckling. Nigel Attwood showed me the damage and laughed bitterly when I asked him how he was going to manage the cost of replacing the floor. He retired to his office to punch numbers into a calculator but it was clear that, however good he may be at juggling figures, the repair work would push the school into deficit.
And then, incredibly, two BBC listeners stepped in and sent a cheque for £20,000 - enough to cover replacing the dining hall floor. Nigel Attwood and Claire du Toit still have difficulty expressing how they felt when they opened the envelope.
"I thought they'd got the noughts in the wrong place," smiles Nigel. "Honestly, I was speechless. I have no words."
Although he has never shared the school's financial difficulties with the pupils, he did decide to tell the children on the School Council (who are like prefects) about the donations. Flabbergasted, they asked first why someone wanted to help their little school so much and then immediately afterwards, asked if they might write the donors a letter of thanks?
"Apart from the overwhelming generosity, it's the fact that people are getting a really clear message about what's happening in school," reflects Claire. "It's the understanding, really, that we did this for. Because it gets hidden under all sorts of other headlines… and there are so many schools in this position."
She taps her pen on the desk to emphasise her point.
"It's the education of the children that suffers. And each year that goes by, each year it gets worse for them."
Outside the staff room, Jamie Neadle is trying to cajole a little boy who's squeezed himself into a corner and who's hiding his face in his hood, back to his classroom. Recently a concerned psychologist who heard Jamie speak of Bellfield's difficulties on the radio, telephoned the school to offer staff some free training.
The £114,000 a year that Bellfield spends on pastoral care could pay for three more teachers, for more classroom assistants, for necessary school repairs. When budgets are stretched so tightly, difficult choices have to be made and Lorraine Harvey and Jamie Neadle say that since they are not part of the core teaching service, they always fear the axe might fall on their department.
"We can understand that, but what happens to the children then?" asks Lorraine rhetorically.
Astoundingly, on the day I visit in October, she has spent much of her morning counselling a scared 10-year-old who's been approached by the local gun and knife gangs.
"Oh yes," she nods when I look at her incredulously. "Gangs. It's constant. And it's mainly gun-gangs round here and some of our children are allowed to wander Northfield alone, so, you know, it's easy for the gangs to pick on them. The children just don't see the danger."
"We're seeing more and more of it," he says. "We have children interacting with gangs on a daily basis because their parents don't know where they are. You have to remember a lot of our children don't have much, they don't have nice things, so if someone offers them something…"
He presses his fists to his temples.
"We haven't lost a child to a gang yet, but it's yet."
Lorraine and Jamie begin to tidy the Rainbow Room, turning off lights and plumping the cushions.
"You know," says Jamie suddenly, with barely suppressed anger, "we sit in here sometimes with our heads in our hands, because it's just heart-breaking."
We can hear the busy chatter of children in the corridor putting on their home-time coats and wellies. Jamie jerks his thumb towards the noise.
"We have children in this school who could fly through university, who are as clever as any children in this country, in this world, but they will never get there because of the blockages in the way. They'll never get the opportunity because regardless of all the things we try to do, breaking the cycle that exists in society is impossible. It's heartbreaking."
After the carol concert, on the hall stage, a tinsel halo and a discarded Christmas jumper are all that remains of Year 5's triumph. In the adjacent dining room, the coloured plastic bowls and beakers for tomorrow's breakfast club have already been laid out in neat lines.
Jamie Neadle's phrase still echoes in my ears. "Someone's got to keep pushing for these children."
All photographs by Alison Baskerville except portrait of Jamie Neadle
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