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Dunblane’s legacy can be found in child welfare

As educators mark the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, the director of education at the time explains the changes that followed within child services

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An invitation to reflect on 13 March 1996 awakens in me a deep, abiding memory of intense suffering, of unbearable loss and of profound sadness. I offer my reflection with hesitation, humility and utmost respect for the families who lost so much, and for the professionals who became, however briefly, part of their lives.

The experts who advised Stirling Council’s management team referred to the “trauma membrane”. The closer that those attempting to provide a response had been to the slaughter in the gymnasium, the more significant that the impact was on the individual, sometimes to the point of paralysis. For each involved person, there were dual consequences. Firstly, the personal response, so unique that it could not be shared with anybody else. Secondly, the professional response. This required an individual to move beyond the personal to a point where they could provide leadership in circumstances that were beyond challenging.

A critique into Stephen Lawrence’s murder referred to the devil being in the detail and in the big picture, too. This could certainly have been said of the devastating challenges facing professionals on 13 March 1996. Extreme attention had to be paid to every minor detail of managing a catastrophic event, but the devil was also in the big, ultimately more important, picture that put the needs and interests of children and families first.

The tragedy was an adult betrayal of children’s lives. Thomas Hamilton’s anger was aimed at adults, forged in his rejection by adults. The consequence of his exclusion was pain and suffering inflicted on children. An abiding legacy from this blackest of days has been, for me, the absolute conviction that every effort should be made to ensure that children are not failed again by the adult world and that those working in children’s services remember “children first, always”.

This requires a whole-society approach. The effectiveness of any attempt to protect children is dependent on the willingness of society as a whole. If a society cannot be persuaded to prioritise its most vulnerable, it can, and should, be forced to by effective legislation. Society and services are interlinked and mutually dependant. Where this link fails the vulnerable, often children, suffer.

A society should provide community, health, education and welfare needs for each and every child. This requires a clear understanding of core values including: freedom and a clarity about what the limits are to state intervention; equality and what commitment exists to positive action to compensate for economic or family disadvantage; democracy and how social and economic pressure and public expectations, however contradictory, are articulated into policy, statute and practice.

Comprehensive support for children requires the consent of the community. It takes a community to keep a child safe, supported by inclusive schools and responsive health services. It also requires the unequivocal commitment of all departments of state, underpinned by a civic and societal belief in the right of each child to have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential.

International comparisons illustrate that child-protection and welfare systems are in a state of constant change and review. All seek to extend the traditional remit of child protection to include child welfare and wellbeing. Each local jurisdiction has specific structures to fit its own history. Each has, however, financial and ideological constraints. It is necessary to achieve a balance between a universal approach and targeted, prioritised interventions. This requires pragmatic decision-making. The imperatives for children’s services are committed families, engaged communities and responsive services.

After the Dunblane tragedy, Stirling Council created the first integrated children’s services in the UK. Its vision was of a child who was cared for, healthy, achieving, included and enterprising. Its definition of professionalism was outward-looking, theoretically grounded, clear in its values and, above all, on the side of children.

Having retired from my role setting up Tusla, Ireland’s Child and Family Agency – based on those same principles of supported families, engaged communities and responsive professionals – I am confident that there is a growing awareness there, too, of the importance of joined-up services that keep children at the heart of what they do. Having struggled with colleagues to establish and protect an embryonic agency amid harsh austerity, I rapidly came to appreciate the Irish Gaelic phrase “Is féidir linn le chéile”. Later resonating with Barack Obama’s “Yes we can”, it means “Together we can do it”. Everything I learned following 13 March 1996 makes me believe that not only can we do it together, we must.

We will never be able to keep every child safe. Parents who sent their children to school on that morning had every reason to expect that they would be loved and cared for. And they were. But the unthinkable happened. We can never say that we will create a society where no child is ever the victim of appalling violence, but we can create a society that prioritises policies and investment that put the needs and interests of children first, always. That has been my top priority ever since 13 March 1996.

In the 20 years since Dunblane, Scotland has remained committed to getting it right for every child. Tragedy can be a catalyst for real change if that is the will of the people. Scotland has worked hard to respect the humanity of each child and to acknowledge collective responsibility for their wellbeing. If an appropriate memorial of the children who lost their lives in Dunblane is possible, the care and welfare of future children is surely fitting.

Gordon Jeyes was Stirling Council’s director of education in 1996. He led the critical incident response to events and co-wrote the report Dunblane: A Place of Learning

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