Education: It's not my place to tell them what to eat: You won't find them in the classroom, yet they play a big part in shaping a school's character. Sarah Strickland profiles the unsung heroes

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The Independent Online
Audrey Bartle, dinner lady at Haybridge High School, Stourbridge, West Midlands.

I WAS trained as a tracer, doing drawings for technical excavators in Yorkshire. When I had children, it was a case of finding something to fit in with them. I just saw the job advertised and it fitted in with the hours I wanted to work. I was sad to give up my drawing job, I was using my mind and my skills a bit more, but I enjoy this job, too.

I did two years at the school over the road before coming here, that's 17 years in all. We were all made redundant nine years ago and Mrs Parfitt decided she would have a go running it as a business. The takings have to pay for all the food, fuel and wages. I think it's improved since it went private, there's a lot more choice. When I was at school there was a set meal, you had to eat what you were given.

Everything has to be ready for lunch by 11.30am - it becomes a habit - but there are times when you do wonder if there's going to be anything on the hatch. I sugared the sprouts for the Christmas meal once - the peas had to come out very quickly then. There's usually a fallback if things go wrong.

We cook everything for the school opposite, too, and transfer it all into vehicles. Lunch starts at midday and we're serving till 1.10; then everything has to be cleared away, washed up and sterilised - we split then, three stay here and the rest go over the road.

You get to know the kids to say hello and when you're out they speak to you, but you really haven't time to have an individual conversation. We see 400 to 500 every day. They can be cheeky, but you just have to put them down. One girl said she had a worm in her cheese - she'd put it in there for a laugh. She was brought into the kitchen to apologise. At first you're horrified at some of the things they say, they don't appreciate what you do, but you get accustomed to it. You do get good comments as well. The biggest dread is food poisoning, but we've never had it - strangely, we have not had kids pretending to be ill, either.

They're very much into fast food. If it isn't chips or pasta they'll say, 'What's this, Miss?' Often they really don't know what the vegetables are, like cabbage. The school decided to have a healthy eating week - taking the chips off is a real problem for us because they won't eat anything else. I don't consider it's my place to tell them what they should and shouldn't eat. They have minds of their own and you can't really dictate to them. Anyway, who can pass a plate of chips without pinching one?

I'd hate the idea of not having something to do and we've worked together for so long we nearly know what one another's thinking - I would miss that, and the kids.

(Photograph omitted)