Rosie Duffield is still in shock.
It never occurred to her that when she stood as a Labour candidate in the very safe Tory parliamentary seat of Canterbury earlier this year, that she might end up as an MP. The seat had never been held by Labour.
But win she did. And she’s taking her new life in her stride – despite working six or seven days a week, staying up to all hours of the night to be present for votes in the House of Commons, and juggling a hundred different things at once. After all, it’s much like being a single parent, a teaching assistant and a UNISON member, a combination that Rosie knows all about from first-hand experience.
We’re talking in Portcullis House, where MPs’ offices look over the Thames. Below, thousands of tourists are enjoying ice creams in the late autumn sun, watching the Millennium Eye turning slowly and taking selfies with Big Ben wrapped in scaffolding behind them.
Rosie isn’t planning to forget what her life was like before getting elected to Parliament – when she had to rely on tax credits and was still struggling to make ends meet, but was working extra, unpaid hours as a teaching assistant because she cared about doing a good job.
And that is why she is joining UNISON in celebrating Stars in Our Schools – one day in the year when we celebrate the school support staff who work so hard to make our schools the best they can be.
Parents, governors, head teachers, teachers and pupils across the UK will be showing their appreciation to cleaners and caterers, the technicians, business managers and teaching and classroom assistants – indeed, the whole team that keeps our schools going.
Within the flurry of awards ceremonies, special assemblies and small ‘thank you’ gifts there is an important message: our schools rely on support staff and can’t function without them.
Rosie worked in several Kent schools, first volunteering to go on school trips and helping children with their reading, and later as a teaching assistant.
“I loved it and looked forward to every day”, she says. “I worked with an autistic child and learned on the job. She was incredibly creative, very imaginative, but unpredictable. It was the best way to learn – just to get really involved.”
Although she loved her job, as the years went by Rosie found that there were increasing demands on teaching assistants – with growing pressure to do more, for no extra pay. She also ended up taking classes by herself, although she wasn’t meant to.
Without support staff I can’t imagine a school being able to run
It was also just assumed that she could stay late and she recalls rushing to pick her son up from school, because she “couldn’t quite afford” after-school clubs, so would have to ask a friend to wait with him till she could get there.
Rosie joined UNISON when she started work in a school. “Everyone should be in a union: fact!” she says. Unions are important, she believes, “Firstly for knowing our rights, because that isn’t necessarily something you’re aware of. Then fighting for our rights if we find they are being ignored.
“Standing together is very important, I think – being part of a collective and realising you’re not alone when you have problems or issues. Just being part of a community.”
Returning to Stars in Our Schools, she is very clear about the struggle it would be to run a school without the whole school team. “Many people come in during the school holidays and weekends to do displays, or update the library or do some work in the office. Without support staff I can’t imagine a school being able to run.
“And all those extra things that aren’t in the job description of a head teacher – teaching assistants and support staff are there to do those. It’s impossible to run a school without them.”
How can someone with their own personal fortune, who went from Oxford to Westminster, know what it’s like to struggle to feed your children?
Rosie speaks passionately about the need for fairness in the school system that would give children the best start in life. She also recognises the chance she’s now been given to change things.
“I’m on the select committee for women and equalities – and I’ve got the chance to potentially make a difference. I’ve waited my whole life to have that opportunity and there’s so much that needs to happen. It’s a great time to be in Parliament.”
Rosie always dreamed of being active in politics, taking her first conscious political decision at 12 years old when she became a vegetarian. And she thinks that the fact she doesn’t come from a privileged background is an asset in her new role.
“I’m sitting opposite people who have gone straight from university to politics. I didn’t go to university, I worked from the age of 16, mostly in the public sector.”
When Parliament debates the issues that impact on people’s daily lives: “I know directly what they’re talking about. How can someone with their own personal fortune, who went from Oxford to Westminster, know what it’s like to struggle to feed your children, know what it’s like to be on tax credits? And yet they’re making decisions on those things.”
So what would she say to the nearly one million women in UNISON who aren’t MPs but want to see change?
“Getting involved in your neighbourhood, asking your friends to join a union, even just choosing to find out more about one or two campaigns – that’s politics. It’s every single bit as important as what we’re doing here in Westminster, actually.
“There’s no real difference between us. If you get involved with any kind of campaigning locally or in the workplace, you’re politically engaged and involved. It doesn’t have to be party political. If you’re working to make a difference or right some wrongs, that’s politics in action.”
- Why don’t you take a leaf out of Rosie’s book and get a little bit more involved? You can nominate your own school Star – and win a prize for your nominee and a prize for yourself?
- Stars in Our Schools celebration day is on Friday 24 November. You can follow all the fun at #StarsinOurSchools and use all our free ideas and resources to get your school involved on the day.