Another Dunblane: why it's 'when' and not 'if'

16th October 2009 at 01:00
In grim warning from official who handled aftermath of 1996 massacre, schools are advised to plan for the worst

Teachers should be "thinking the unthinkable" and planning for another school attack in the UK, according to those who dealt with the aftermath of the Dunblane Primary shooting.

Alastair Sinclair was chief emergency planning officer for Stirling Council in 1996 when a lone gunman went on the rampage in a primary school. Although Britain has not suffered a similar school shooting in the past 13 years, Mr Sinclair said he believed that changes in society, and the increased threat of terrorism, meant it was a case of "when and not if" children and staff would be targeted again.

Mr Sinclair was addressing a conference on how to deal with serious incidents in schools, organised by Aylesbury College in Buckinghamshire.

Referring to cases where pupils had brought guns into schools themselves, such as the Columbine shooting in the US in 1999, Mr Sinclair said: "It's likely someone again will be ridiculously stupid. Schools are full of children who are aware of how to get into the papers and who have access to weaponry.

"I'm asking schools to think the unthinkable - they need to go through the process of thinking and planning."

Mr Sinclair had just started his job with Stirling Council when Thomas Hamilton committed the massacre at Dunblane in 1996.

All local authorities now have emergency plans. But Mr Sinclair believes that schools must also consider how staffing levels could change after a tragedy and what type of leadership might be needed.

"The impact on the children is huge, and the impact on the community is massive and it leaves ripples afterwards," he said. "But what about the teachers? They often get forgotten and there needs to be a process to look after staff."

Mr Sinclair said that in the days after the attack, one of the unexpected challenges had been the high volume of support from well-wishers. The local authority had to deal with two trucks of post a day for teachers and pupils, as well as donations, and celebrities and pop stars who wanted to organise a charity concert.

The conference also heard from Chief Inspector Dick Auger, who was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene at the Hungerford massacre in 1987.

Chief Inspector Auger, now a governor of Aylesbury College, described the aftermath of the attack in which 16 people were killed and 15 injured - including another officer.

"The lesson we learnt was that schools have to buy time if they are involved in an incident. There's no way you can prevent a killing taking place if it's a spontaneous attack.

"It's also important to have a grievance procedure so any animosity can be detected. It would work like an anonymous Crimestoppers system.

"Schools should have a good relationship with police, so any information is acted upon by officers."

Last month, two teenagers accused of plotting to blow up their Manchester secondary school on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine massacre were acquitted.

A jury took just an hour to clear Ross McKnight, 16, and Matthew Swift, 18, agreeing that their jottings about school massacres had been acts of fantasy.

Aylesbury College is running a London workshop on January 18. For details, email

After the tragedy

The Dunblane shootings followed a machete attack at a Wolverhampton nursery and the fatal stabbing of London head Philip Lawrence. A report published that year advocated more CCTV cameras in schools, fewer entrances and better staff training.

At the time of the attack, Stirling Council, the local education authority, had just been formed and was suffering a budget crisis.

In the wake of the attacks, the council deployed two psychologists, two specialist teachers and a psychotherapist at Dunblane Primary. They were linked to a support centre with a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, social workers and community workers. Twelve extra teachers and assistants were also drafted in as well as additional secretaries, cleaners and other support staff.

A co-ordinator with a counselling background looked after the needs of staff.

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