After tragedy, a school must heal

2nd May 2014 at 01:00
Profession urges calm response to fatal stabbing of teacher

It was an incident no school should have to deal with. Ann Maguire, a 61-year-old Spanish and RE teacher said to be the "heart" of Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, was stabbed to death in front of her pupils on Monday. A 15-year-old boy has been arrested.

That she died in such a "profoundly shocking" manner, as prime minister David Cameron described it, makes the aftermath all the more challenging for the school to deal with.

This is the first killing of a teacher on school grounds in Britain since the Dunblane massacre in 1996. But although such events are mercifully rare, schools nonetheless need to be ready to help young people and staff to deal with them.

Phil Hearne, executive principal of the Crest Academies in Brent, North London, was headteacher of London Academy in 2006 when a 15-year-old boy, Kiyan Prince, was stabbed to death outside school while trying to break up a fight.

Mr Hearne said it was important for schools to have systems in place to respond to tragic events, particularly the death of a teacher or pupil. He praised the decision of Corpus Christi to remain open, saying the power of routine could not be underestimated in helping communities to cope with bereavement.

"You have to keep those routines because that is what the children are used to, and you have to balance that with the emotional and spiritual needs of everybody in the school," he said, adding that London Academy had organised significant amounts of "circle time" to allow students and staff to share their thoughts and feelings openly.

"You also have to have a great deal of sympathy for the headteacher, as they will be under a tremendous amount of pressure and feel responsible for the whole community," he said. "That person needs support, even if it is just someone to talk to."

Help for students and staff in such circumstances can also come from educational psychologists, who can offer counselling. Mary Jenkin, of the Association of Educational Psychologists, said that the local council's service would be providing assistance to Corpus Christi.

"With an incident like this, the psychology service would drop everything to offer support," Dr Jenkin said. "It is important for both staff and students to have a space where they can talk about what happened and their feelings. Those who actually witnessed the incident might need more specific therapy."

Alison Thompson, children and young people services and development manager at charity Cruse Bereavement Care, said that any death resulting from a crime could cause young people to feel angry and vengeful.

"The shock after a crime like this can be much more prolonged than other deaths, and there is generally an increase in the need for vengeance, which is something school staff will need to be aware of," she said. "Pupils should know it is OK to talk about these kinds of things, but acting on it is not OK."

The death of Ann Maguire has led to questions about whether school security is fit for purpose. The most recent government figures show that 550 pupils were permanently excluded in 2011-12 for physical assault against an adult in school, a number that had fallen slightly over the previous six years.

But the response from the profession has been to call for a period of calm and to resist knee-jerk reactions such as installing metal detectors or implementing other security measures.

In contrast to the US, where an average of two shootings a month took place in schools between the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 and February this year, teachers' leaders have stressed that schools in the UK are an overwhelmingly safe environment.

How to help

Discuss death and grief with your class in this lesson.


What is bereavement and how does it feel? Explore the topic using this information sheet.


Grief can have unexpected effects. Find out more in this guide to understanding loss.


Watch a Teachers TV video on how to support bereaved pupils.



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