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Places of safety in a world of danger

No one can escape the horrors of recent events in the news, but what can teachers do to reassure young children?

Last week, I noticed articles on all these disturbing topics in just one issue of a broadsheet newspaper:

* London bombings: Blair appoints Muslim scholar accused by critics of sympathising with violence to government taskforce trying to root out extremism

* Beslan school siege: one year on, survivors mourn the dead

* Rory Blackhall murder: pledge to change the way the Scottish legal system deals with sex offenders

* New Orleans flood: thousands dead.

As children return to school this month, their world appears to be more dangerous than it was a year ago. Terrorists are on the loose; a major first world city is devastated; and yet another child has been found murdered. What is going through children's heads as they walk through the playground and through the doors? Are they blithely oblivious, or are they anxious?

Do they worry if their parents go to work on the Tube? How can you reassure and protect them?

When disasters take place far away, children over here can be assured they are safe at school. But now, in London, we are not safe, and children in Leeds and Birmingham may feel under threat as well. Teachers in these cities will face a more careful balancing act than those in other parts of the country, where there is no serious concern that bombers could strike.

Angela Piddock, head of Wilberforce primary in West London, says in her first assembly every year she talks about what she wants for the children: that they should feel safe and secure. This year, there will be even more emphasis on this theme.

"You have to acknowledge that there are things going on out there, things that are dangerous," she says, "but we assure them we are trying to keep them safe."

Teachers will emphasise the importance of everyone looking after each other. At Wilberforce, the issues are complex. Some children come from Iraq, and some Asian mothers have suffered verbal abuse.

"We'll wait and see what the kids talk about," Ms Piddock says. "We'll take our cue from them - I think that's important."

Peter Greaves, deputy head of Dovelands primary in Leicester, does the same. After September 11, he put posters on the wall for the children to write their questions.

He finds that children are particularly interested in understanding how a disaster might affect their own world, and from there, they can think about other children's worlds.

After the Asian tsunami, for instance, they thought about the children who had no schools to go to, and they will probably be wondering the same about the children of Louisiana and Mississippi. It is natural for children to externalise what they have seen on TV, so that after the twin towers catastrophe, children's drawings were of airplanes crashing into buildings, and their playground games reflected the same theme.

"It's not comfortable to watch as an adult," Mr Greaves says, but it is important to follow it up with circle time and other discussions.

While any questions children ask about terrorism will be confronted, Mr Greaves aims to make sure it does not distract from what the school wants children to learn about Islam and Muslims. When they think of Islam, he wants his class to recall the school's Ramadan assembly led by Muslim staff and pupils, and to think of their amiable friend Mohammad who sits at their table.

There are two parallel agendas, he points out: what you talk about in assembly and what you talk about in the staffroom.

First on the second agenda is security and safety. In the wake of the murder of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall in Scotland, Dovelands' first staff meeting looked at what to do if a child does not turn up at school.

The same is true at Wilberforce. When the July 7 bombs went off, the children were not told at school that day, but the head cancelled all school trips for the rest of July, only visiting the local park, and will be more careful about trips this term as well.

When there was a bomb scare near the school on the last day of term, the children were not allowed to go home but had to wait for their parents to come and pick them up.

In the midst of all this, primary schools will carry on doing what they are so good at - creating a caring ethos, where children are taught to resolve disputes through discussion, to respect others' points of view and beliefs, and where they can feel secure and accepted. And that is really what is needed.

Book of the week, friday 22 Peter Greaves: Creativity for control freaks, teacher 13 write to

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