Harlequin toad - one of the world's rarest frogs - is born in Manchester

'It’s a huge responsibility the team do not take lightly'

Good morning Millers — this week’s briefing has some great recommendations for events and stories marking International Women’s Day, and important news of a very rare toad that now resides at Manchester Museum.

If you missed our weekend story, it was an investigation into inadequate food parcels offered to schools by Manchester City Council’s catering arm Manchester Fayre. If you know more about this story or have something you would like our team to look into, please email editor@manchestermill.co.uk.

The big story: School’s back

Top line: Schools go back across England today, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson promising that this time it will be permanent. Secondary school students will return to classes in a staggered fashion through the week as staff work out how to operate a mass testing operation alongside their day jobs.

Make no mistake, this is a really big moment. The loss of large chunks of the school calendar in the past year has been one of the most ruinous aspects of the pandemic and its effects will be felt for many years to come.

The looming issue: attainment gaps. Studies have repeatedly concluded that the closures of schools and the need to learn from home will have widened the already large gaps between poorer students and their wealthier peers. Privileged students have had access to private tutors, good computers and quiet rooms to work in, while their less lucky peers fell behind.

  • 45% of children eligible for free school meals said they understood the school work they were given during lockdown, compared with 57% of their better-off peers, according to ImpactEd.

  • Children from poorer families did at least one hour less learning a day compared with those in richer families, the Institute of Fiscal Studies found.

  • 40% of middle-class pupils were doing at least five hours of work a day compared with only 26 per cent from working-class households, says the Sutton Trust.

Key context: Where should we be looking for these attainment gaps to be opening up in GM? Disproportionately in Manchester, Salford and Rochdale according to the latest data — all of whom have above-average proportions of students from disadvantaged homes. We looked at what percentage of secondary school students are eligible for free school meals in different boroughs and there is a big disparity between the local authorities, from Manchester at 30.7% to Trafford at 9.8%.

See the graph below:

Our view: This issue should be right at the top of every local politician’s agenda this year. Councils ought to be obsessed with the question of how to help the least well-off students catch up on the things they have missed since last March. Sharing good practice between schools and persuading private schools and private tutoring agencies to volunteer help should all be on the agenda. The government is offering free private tutoring to help some students catch up, but a much broader effort will be needed to avert the worst effects of this educational hiatus.

Got views on this? Get in touch by hitting reply to this newsletter.

Further reading: ‘A radical effort to share out the benefits of private tutoring takes off in Manchester’. Our piece on The Tutor Trust, which offers private tutoring to disadvantaged students.

This week’s weather

The location of this forecast is Manchester and it’s sourced from the Met Office.

Covid-19 update

  • Cases: The GM case rate is now under 100 for the first time since early September, and is falling fast — down 41.7% in a week. That compares to 62.4 across England, down 35.9%. Our latest dashboard is below, and if you want to see it every morning, follow us on Twitter.

  • Hospitals: There are 101 Covid patients in GM’s intensive care wards, down from 170 a month ago. The number of non-critical Covid patients has fallen to 519. For comparison, in the third week of January, it was 1,133.

  • Vaccines: 38% of over-18s in GM have now had their first dose of one of the vaccines, or 849,670 people. As of the middle of last week, 91% of over-70s had been vaccinated, and 47% of 50-69s.

Home of the week

This 4-bedroom cottage in Egerton, Bolton — built in the Corolean style in 1668 — goes on auction in April unless sold in advance for £550,000.

Five stories worth reading

1. Toad of Oxford Road halls

One of the world’s rarest toads — the variable harlequin toad, which usually lives deep in the Central American rainforests of Panama and Costa Ricahas been bred by scientists at Manchester Museum. Populations plummeted because of the 90s pet trade, but a deadly fungus is now their main threat, reports The Guardian. “The university is the only institution outside Panama to house these frogs,” says the museum’s curator of herpetology Andrew Gray. “It’s a huge responsibility the team do not take lightly.”

2. Patients in their final moments

A friend of 50 years travels up from the South of England to say goodbye. “She’d known her since they were seven-years-old. She knew it was the last time she’d see her.” That scene is from a moving piece by MEN reporter Beth Abbit about the end-of-life care given to patients during the pandemic, where specialist staff work hard to make sure no one dies alone.

3. Boohoo told to reform

MPs have written to Manchester’s highly successful online clothes retailer Boohoo, asking the company to link its bonus pay to improving working conditions in its controversial supply chain, reports Sky News. “We are asking Boohoo to put its money where its mouth is and link the multimillion-pound bonuses it has lined up for its bosses to the achievement of its ethical and environmental pledges,” the letter says.

4. Fine at NHS demo

This weekend around 40 people attended a rally in Manchester city centre to protest the government’s 1% pay rise for NHS staff, the BBC reports. The organiser of the demo has been fined £10,000 by police for breaching lockdown rules. "Unfortunately officers were met with a degree of non-compliance and it was therefore necessary to enforce issue fixed penalty notices,” Greater Manchester Police said.

5. Women who made Manchester

It’s not a new piece, but given that’s it is International Women’s Day today, here’s a nice feature from Manchester Confidential about the women who made Manchester, which includes this caveat: “Only those who made a name for themselves are included and the serried ranks of hundreds of thousands of others who worked, raised families, raised issues and led, on the incomplete road to equality, are left to the cruel anonymity of time.”

International Women’s Day

To mark IWD, read a few of our great recent pieces about pioneering women in Greater Manchester.

  • From the Oldham mills to political revolution: The irrepressible life of Annie Kenney. By Mollie Simpson. Read here.

  • In the shadow of the mills of Chorlton-on-Medlock, Lily Maxwell cooked up a plan to vote. By Rebecca Batley. Read here.

  • 'The girls are taking over': The young women finding solace and community at Manchester's skate parks. By Dani Cole. Read here.

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Things to do this week

Podcast | ‘RARE/D Podcast from the Whitworth Group wants you to change the way you think about health and rare genetic conditions. This episode, ‘Just how rare are you?’ was recorded in the Whitworth Art Gallery. Listen here.

  • They chat about the human genome with Genetic Counsellor Sasha Henriques and Dr George Burghel from Manchester Genomics, and some local schoolchildren — the patients of tomorrow.

Watch | HOME is showing ‘Song Without A Name’ (Canción sin nombre) directed by Melina León. Set in Peru 1988, “an impoverished Quechua woman named Geo is expecting her first child, and responds to an ad for free natal care. When her newborn baby is stolen, and the authorities seem indifferent to her plight, a shy young journalist takes on Geo’s case.”

Listen | Artistic collective MUKA have collaborated with Islington Mill, exploring the building’s history. They’ve created a fantastic 2-hour playlist of musicians who have played at The Mill over the past 15 years, including Peaches, Russian Circles, Space Lady and Bo Ningen. Proper eclectic stuff. Listen here.

Event | Take part in the Life and Drawing workshop from the School of Integration, supported by Manchester International Festival and Manchester Art Gallery on Tuesday. Get your tickets on Eventbrite.

Book of the Week | YA MUM and Other Stories from the Backstreets of Britain. Manchester writer and illustrator Ben Tallon — who got one of his first commissions from a creative company inside the Hotspur Press — has written a “rancid collection of short stories, moments and embarrassments from Britain’s cultural underbelly.” Buy here.

International Women’s Day | A few options to celebrate IWD.

  • Creative Manchester: This evening, join Maxine Peake and the University of Manchester for an evening of conversation about women in the creative industries. Book here.

  • Victoria Baths: On Thursday, listen to curator and historian Helen Antrobus share the stories of ‘First in the Fight: Sunny Lowry and the Radical Women of Manchester.’

  • Royal Exchange Theatre: In homage to women who influence our past and future, the Royal Exchange Theatre has commissioned six Greater Manchester-based artists to make six new pieces of work.

The church of St James in Didsbury. The original chapel is said to have been a 13th-century oratory. Its first mention is in the records of the Lancashire Assizes when “William, Chaplain of Didsbury, came not on the first day and was fined.” Photographed by The Mill’s Dani Cole.

Letters to the editor

It is hugely important to see The Mill highlighting the poor provision offered to children receiving Free School Meals. At Manchester Central Foodbank we have witnessed first-hand the rising scale of child poverty in our city: in 2020 we supported almost three times as many children as 2019. With the council’s school meals service under threat of closure because of budget constraints, it has never been more important for schools and councils to innovate and creatively look for new, community-based, super-local models. In 2020 we partnered with 7 local primary schools and delivered parcels with at least 27 different food items costing less than £16 per child – about half the price some private companies charge. Community-based pilots could potentially deliver much closer collaboration with schools and families, support well-paid local jobs and local businesses, and offer a new model of school food provision that keeps investment in our city. Freya Lightfoot and Matthew Stallard, Manchester Central Foodbank

If Manchester’s leaders are going to berate the government for its mistakes over free school meals, they need to get their own house in order. It’s no good scoring points against the Tories and then offering the same fare to local families. Competence matters more than virtue signalling. John Blake, Whalley Range

Irishmen may well have had to work as navvies in Stockport in 1852, but certainly not on the ship canal as you suggest. Work did not start on the Manchester Ship Canal until 1887. Navvies would be working on railways rather than canals in 1852. The work was very hard and dangerous but actually very well paid. Irish agricultural fugitives arriving in Manchester were physically stronger than Lancashire and Cheshire mill-workers and better suited to navvying and mining. Andrew Rosthorn, Lancashire

Obituary: Pete Zorba

Pete Zorba was a house DJ and award-winning fashion show hairdresser from Sale. He was a key figure in the Manchester record label Kaluki Musik and a regular at Warehouse Project, Parklife and Space Ibiza. Zorba was diagnosed with a brain tumour four years ago and his wife Melanie told the MEN that: “he had the most amazing four years, he lived every day to the fullest.” He passed away at the age of 45.

The MEN’s obituary explains more:

Melanie understands the Warehouse Project and Kaluki Musik are hoping to host an event to coincide with Pete's birthday in July, in his honour. His best friend, meanwhile, has told her there have been more than 70 offers from world renowned DJs who want to host fundraising gigs in Pete's memory.

Melanie added: "We're known as 'The Zorbas' and that's who we are, there's no one like us. Everybody has been touched by Pete, it's incredible how much he was thought of.”

Pete Zorba, died Thursday 25 February 2021.