To the headteacher of Marcus Rashford's old primary school - where, not much more than a decade ago, he received the lifeline of free school meals himself - the furore over meagre food parcels this week came as little surprise.
She had considered giving the hampers to nearly 300 pupils in her care, but swiftly decided against it. Instead, Emma Roberts' school opted to give parents vouchers and the "freedom of choice" that comes with them. "It wasn't for us to say what families should, and will want, to eat," Roberts said.
Speaking to the Guardian from Button Lane primary school in Wythenshawe, Manchester, Roberts described the difficulties of feeding disadvantaged children as a familiar one. Six in 10 of her pupils receive free school meals. Life expectancy in Wythenshawe is seven years below neighbouring Trafford. "We know that if children are fed, and are fed well, then they're going to thrive," she said.
The school's most famous former pupil has yet again been pivotal in holding the government to account by forcing a third U-turn this week. His tweets to 4 million followers amplifying pictures of woefully inadequate free school meals ultimately forced ministers to abandon the "food parcel first" approach and allow schools to choose to issue vouchers instead. © Provided by The GuardianEmma Roberts, headteacher at Button Lane primary school in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
In his spare time, Rashford, 23, played a match for Manchester United - who now sit at the top of the Premier League - and taught thousands of children a PE lesson through the BBC's lockdown learning series.
He keeps in touch with Button Lane primary. Roberts said that in pre-Covid times he would frequently pop in to sign autographs, pose for photos and give out hugs. Last year he came in and cooked meatballs, which some of the children tried. A success? "Well, nobody screwed up their face," she laughed.
Roberts said Rashford was not looking for glory on those visits. "It feels like he belongs to the school, and to the children, when they see him. They feel like he's one of them."
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She described him as a role model, not just to the children but to the teachers, too. "We talk to our children about being the best they could be. That's our school motto: only the best is good enough. And we're a rights respecting school so we talk about being able to stand up for what you believe in and children's rights, which this fits perfectly into."
The teachers, including some who taught Rashford when he was a boy, tell pupils to look to the footballer and food poverty campaigner as an example of how to get points across in a way that is respectful.
Rashford apparently has not changed much over the past decade: his former teachers describe a quiet, conscientious pupil with lots of friends who didn't let his clear talent for football go to his head.
"He's managed to make such a positive difference to the lives of families. And he's done it admirably, he's done it with respect. He hasn't raised his voice. He's spoken eloquently and managed to make a change," Roberts said.
She credits him for the attention he has brought to the issue of food poverty in the area, describing how she received cards with cheques inside when the pandemic began.
Roberts has been amazed at the way the tight-knit community has pulled together during the crisis that unfolded, with one local business donating £1,000 towards devices. "We've had some older residents in the community who've knocked on the door and said: 'I don't need this iPad as much as a child who's trying to do their learning.'"
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Access to laptops and internet data was a "massive problem" for children learning remotely, Roberts said. Button Lane has three times the national average of children who receive free school meals and, based on that, was allocated 116 laptops by the Department for Education. Up until December, they had received 23.
Now, finally, they have the full allocation and the headteacher has managed to source wifi dongles and sim cards for parents who have to use mobile data to get online.
Roberts would like to explore the option of cash payments made directly to parents for free school meals instead of vouchers, firmly believing that families know best. In the meantime, she is keen to help parents with nutritious recipe ideas and tips on how to best make the most out of food bought with the vouchers.
From next week, school cooks will be sending "how to" videos. There will be family favourites, Roberts said, such as ragu and a cheese sauce, and, of course, how to cook Marcus Rashford's favourite meal.