Coming to terms with Dunblane

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
After the worst day in the history of Scottish education, Dante's Inferno seems appropriate: "Nessun maggior dolore . . ." "There is no greater sorrow than to recall a time of happiness in misery."

Schools have never been happier places. Although pupils still underachieve and there are ample warnings about the damage done by shortage of resources, most children feel settled and encouraged at school. Since security, emotional as well as physical, is a prerequisite of successful learning, our children are more likely to do well than those in any previous generation.

That is one reason why the terrible violation at Dunblane primary is so painful. As well as being murder on an almost unparalleled scale, it is a challenge to beliefs that underlie modern education. It is an invitation to turn our backs on openness and to shut children and their teachers away from the community to which they belong. Parents are repeatedly told that they are welcome in school, but must they now penetrate a security cordon?

Rationally, we know that another attack like that by Thomas Hamilton is so unlikely that it cannot dictate the future. But emotionally we are less sure. After all, before last Wednesday no one would have said that here such an act was believable at all. Little wonder that parents have hugged their children so tightly before seeing them off to school. Emotion and reason give different messages.

And so, as after the Jamie Bulger murder, there is a nagging worry that perhaps things have changed, that society has to accept meaningless violence. And what if we come to countenance a level of wickedness, while still fighting it? To admit the probability of evil acts is close to seeing them as a norm - the trap into which the Third Reich lured so many Germans.

Nevertheless there is comfort in evidence of normal decencies. Two days after the massacre, a bundle of inspectorate reports arrived at The TES Scotland. It was reassuring to read the repetitive phrases which I and other commentators have sometimes mocked as bland and trite. In every school - primary, secondary and special - there is evidence of happy pupils and dedicated staff.

At Tarland primary in Grampian, "all parents felt that their children enjoyed school". Pupils of Castlehead High in Paisley "were very positive about the school". Harmeny, a school in Balerno for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, "had a warm and welcoming ethos".

In other words these are schools with the characteristics of Dunblane primary and nearly 3,000 other schools in Scotland. Whatever new measures have to be applied to try to make schools more secure, there is nothing amiss with the way they go about their job. Neither Thomas Hamilton nor fear will destroy what is good.

Hamilton took cruel advantage of the openness of buildings. He also struck at another of the principles of education today. Schools, everyone agrees, should be a community resource. They should not lock their doors at 4pm and keep them shut throughout the holidays.

Across central Scotland, Hamilton set up boys' clubs in schools. Most lasted only a short time before parents became suspicious and withdrew their children. But he appeared to be offering a voluntary service, and so was allowed to let buildings.

Only now is it clear that he was manipulative, perverted and increasingly twisted. His was a defilement of community involvement. The question for the future is how to ensure that school lettings are made only to reputable people. No one expects rigorous checks if an individual or organisation seeks to hire a room once. But surely there has to be proof of good intent from those wanting to set up a regular base, especially if the aim is to attract young people?

Do smaller local authorities and devolved management make checks more problematic? If a register of undesirables is to be kept, probably yes. But if school governing bodies decide who should hire rooms, local knowledge (and even the level of unsubstantiated suspicion which attached to Hamilton) may be an effective safeguard.

One cause for optimism is sure. Dunblane primary has shown it has the staff to make it again a happy place for children. In that sense it is no different from anywhere else in Scotland.

Willis Pickard is the editor of The Times Educational Supplement Scotland

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