Each year, Anderton Park primary school asks its pupils to vote to name a classroom after someone whose values, humanity and achievements make them an enduring inspiration to children. It has rooms named after, among others, Michelle Obama, Muhammad Ali and JK Rowling.
This year, the footballer, child poverty campaigner and man-of-the-moment Marcus Rashford, was chosen by pupils at the inner-city Birmingham school, coming joint first with the US civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and ahead of other shortlisted luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough, Malala and Martin Luther King.
A picture of Rashford smiling in his Manchester United shirt now hangs outside the room, captioned with the words: “Marcus is determined, polite, thoughtful, does not show off which is why we like him so much. He does not give up. He inspires us to be great citizens and use our voices calmly and firmly. He loves his mum and knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without her strength.”
Rashford’s powerful campaigning has thrust the neglected issues of child poverty and hunger on to the front pages of the national media, forced a government policy U-turn on holiday food vouchers, and this week provoked a passionate debate in parliament. His growing off-field renown was recognised when he was made an MBE earlier this month. He has also stuck a chord among the nation’s children and schools.
Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the headteacher at Anderton Park, said her pupils were attracted by Rashford’s authenticity, politeness and determination. They saw that as a child he was, like many of them, on free school meals, and how, despite his rapid rise to fame and fortune, was resolutely determined to improve the lives of children like them.
She read from a letter addressed to Rashford by one of her pupils, Umayma then in year 6, in July: “You said: ‘We have to make England what we want it to look like.’ I am very inspired by that because we all have to take part to make our country the best it can be.”
After they sent their letters and paintings to the England striker he thanked them via Twitter, and sent back a signed shirt, which hangs in honour in the Marcus Rashford room. Teaching staff, too, were hugely impressed by him: “Some were even more excited than the children,” said Hewitt-Clarkson.
“Marcus breaks the stereotypes of what a successful young person should be, the cars-wealth-swimming pools stuff, and that’s incredibly appealing. We are all for that at Anderton Park. We want our children to be people who ask questions in life, who are active in life, citizenship and work,” she added.
Dev Sharma, 15, from Leicester, who is an ambassador for the Children’sRight2Food campaign, is on free school meals. He was inspired by how the footballer used his own experience of poverty to put the issue at the centre of public debate. “People dismiss food poverty, say it doesn’t exist in this country, but he’s changing that.”
Rashford has been the subject of lessons at Reay primary school in Lambeth, south London, where pupils have been marking Black History Month by studying inspirational figures. Earlier this year, students wrote to him thanking him for his campaigning. Messages included this from Dani: “You are good at scoring goals and helping people”; and, from Primrose: “I wish you were my PE teacher”.
Schools, particularly in deprived areas, know intimately how the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has exacerbated pressure on already stretched family budgets. At Anderton Park, the proportion of pupils registered for free school meals rose from 35% pre-Covid, to 47% in September.
“This is a very difficult time,” said Hewitt-Clarkson. “If you are struggling, you are really struggling.”
Responding to Wednesday’s Commons vote, when a Labour motion to force the government to provide food support over the autumn half-term holiday for children on free school meals was defeated by 322 to 261, Reay’s deputy headteacher, Kate Hartill ,said: “Marcus Rashford has more emotional intelligence and empathy than many of those who should know better.”
At Bredbury Green primary school in Stockport, Greater Manchester, the school curriculum has this term focused on the question, what is humanity? Each class has been given an inspirational figure to study. Year 2 was given Rashford. “It’s really inspired them,” said the deputy head, Ellis Cuttress. “What they’ve really learned is no matter how young you are, you can make a difference if you want to. They really understand his humanity.”