'Be sad, but you can also be happy'

Soham has gone back to school and the headteachers long for a return to normal life. Karen Thornton reports

HEADTEACHER Howard Gilbert is working on a letter to parents about how this year's funding settlement will affect the school.

He and Geoff Fisher, head of the neighbouring primary school, long for a return to such mundane tasks. But the police van parked next door to the screened-off caretaker's house shows Soham schools still have a way to go.

St Andrew's primary, where murdered schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were pupils, and the next-door village college, attended by their older siblings, have been at the centre of the unfolding tragedy.

Mr Fisher, 54, had known the 10-year-olds since they started school. At times emotional, he recalls hundreds of people turning up at the school the day after the girls disappeared on the first Sunday in August.

"As people finished work we had this great surge - everyone wanted to do something. We had 400 people here wanting to go and search. When they made the arrests, the hope was just about gone. That was very difficult."

Former college caretaker Ian Huntley was later charged with murder and, along with partner Maxine Carr, once a classroom assistant at St Andrew's, perverting the course of justice. For a time, both heads found themselves without schools. Worse, the college became a crime scene.

"When the college itself became the focus, that was quite devastating," said Mr Gilbert.

"I was called in to go around with the police and give permission for things to be done. Even now I still can't get my head around it."

Horrendous rumours circulated around the 8,700-strong town, but after seeing the police searches and clean-ups firsthand, he was able to reassure local people.

"There was a big worry about what people might find in the school, but the answer was nothing and that helped a lot."

The discovery of the girls' bodies triggered another kind of trauma. "All the flowers started to arrive in Soham. Initially it was just local people," said Mr Fisher.

"Then people started coming from all over the place, and in coaches. The churchyard would be packed with people you didn't know. There was a sense that the community had been taken over, much as they appreciated that people wanted to come."

Both heads feel the subsequent community service at Ely cathedral was a turning point. The flowers were removed from the local church that night and some sense of normality returned.

Both schools have been endeavouring to reinforce that since term started last week. There were commemorative assemblies and two doves were released at both schools.

Counsellors were on stand-by in case staff or pupils wanted help. But, with the exception of two or three primary children, they have not been needed.

"At assembly I said it was right for us all to be upset and for us to talk about Holly and Jessica. But it was also right for them to be happy. School was normally a happy place and that was what we wanted it to be," said Mr Fisher.

"We went back into lessons and the children were all extremely calm. The normality and routine seemed to help them and the staff."

Many of the schools' staff live in or near Soham and shared the hopes, fears, but also support, of being with colleagues. Secondary staff had the added trauma of learning of the death of a languages teacher from cancer.

Mr Gilbert said: "It's interesting, the difference between people who were here and those who weren't. In some ways it's been harder for staff who weren't around."

It was not until he went to buy thank-you cards for all the people who have helped support the schools that he realised it was an impossible task. A local businessman provided a high-street base for the college when the police had banished staff from the school, while BT installed telephone lines in hours rather than days. Contractors flooded the college with workers to get maintenance work completed in time for it to open promptly, in the few days available after the police had moved out.

The heads have had the personal and practical support of Cambridgeshire education officers as well as their families, friends in the community and each other.

Mr Gilbert's three teenage sons took over the housework while Mr Fisher's best friend at college got back in touch after 30 years. And the cards of sympathy and support have been gratefully received and displayed in staff rooms.

"The two cards that moved me most were from two parents to our school, saying don't change what you are doing," says Mr Fisher.

At some point, the primary will establish a permanent memorial to the girls. Mr Gilbert is also considering installing security cameras, but the main aim is to get back to normal. "We want to make sure we are doing the best we can for the kids. We are even more determined now to give them the best possible education," he said.

Opinion, 25

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