The day I can't forget;Interview;Honor Houghton

8th May 1998 at 01:00
'It was a lovely day. I remember vividly a group of children in the playground having a lesson. Then a childraced in and said, "Sheri has collapsed".'

Wendy Wallace describes what happens when a child dies at school.

It is perhaps the teacher's worst nightmare - a child in your care dying. So much so that few have thought about what they would do if it happened. But although dying is not what we expect of children, each year some do. A proportion of these will die either at school or as a result of something that happened there.

It happened to Honor Houghton, the head of a small Bedfordshire infants school, on a sunny November morning in 1996. "It was a lovely day," she says. "I remember vividly a group of children in the playground having a lesson on forces. I saw them out there. Then a child raced in and said 'Sheri has collapsed'. I looked out of the window to see a child on the ground."

Mrs Houghton grabbed a blanket and ran down to the playground, where eight-year-old Sheri appeared unconscious with blood coming from her mouth. Her class teacher, shocked, had put her in the recovery position and was kneeling beside her. "A colleague arrived, and we realised she wasn't breathing," says Mrs Houghton. "We both began resuscitation attempts, heart and mouth to mouth. That continued until the paramedics arrived." Within 15 minutes, Sheri had been taken to hospital.

"I then realised I'd have to inform her parents," says Mrs Houghton. "At that stage, we didn't know that she'd died. I contacted her mother and said there had been an accident in the playground. I had to go round and collect her and take her to the hospital. She was worried but not distraught because at that stage we thought she was unconscious."

Sadly though, after trying for two hours to bring Sheri around, staff at the hospital came out and broke the news that she was dead. For Honor Houghton, still at the hospital with the family, this was both a personal loss and marked the start of a challenging management responsibility.

As well as comforting Sheri's parents, she had other things she needed to do immediately. "It was about two o'clock. I had to go and ring county hall and the health and safety executive - because at this stage nobody knew why she had died. They both sent representatives to the school, as did the police. And it was an absolute priority to make sure that parents got the correct information. I sorted out a letter with my deputy over the phone to go home with children that day."

That first letter told the parents as much as the staff knew - that there had been an incident at school, that a child had been taken to hospital and that the child had died. "We wanted them to know everything so they could talk things through with their children," says Mrs Houghton. Further letters followed, keeping families in the picture.

Honor Houghton's role was made easier by Sheri's parents. "I was blessed with the fact that her own parents - although they were angry and grief-stricken - gave me permission verbally and emotionally to share this child's life with everyone in school," she says. "It gave us the opportunity to lead a school in grief, yes, but also in celebration of a child's life."

The day after Sheri Webb died, staff set up a "remembrance table" in school. In a glimpse of what was to come with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, children placed toys, drawings and notes there. Over the following days, as the community began to do likewise, the table was extended down the whole of one side of the school hall. "It gave people the opportunity to do something, because one of the worst things is the helplessness. The school became a focal point for the grief," says Mrs Houghton.

Ripples of shock spread wide. Even staff at the education authority, Bedfordshire, felt the sense of shock and helplessness that afflicted pupils, teachers and parents at the school. At around the same time, there were three other pupil deaths in the county. In response, Bedfordshire have now produced a bereavement pack to help other schools faced with the loss of a child, staff member or parent.

Many of the lessons learned at Bromham Lower school have been incorporated into the document. When Tragedy Strikes provides an example of a policy for bereavement and loss from one school, advice for headteachers, guidance for staff and parents, contacts and helpful suggestions on assisting grieving children. It will be available from Bedfordshire later this year.

Sheri Webb's death was due to natural causes, from a virus she had had earlier in her life which had attacked the muscles of her heart and led to a heart attack. It was made clear by the hospital the day after she died that no one was to blame, or had been negligent in any way. The close-knit Church of England school drew together to mourn her and celebrate her life. Still, turbulent emotions were aroused. "Some people found their faith tested. You never do explain the death of a child," says Mrs Houghton.

Few long-serving headteachers will escape the sad and shocking business of managing a bereavement at school: the number of deaths for children of school age is about 2,000 a year.

One of these was Terry Farrell, headteacher of the School of St David and St Katharine in Hornsey, north London. Just over a year ago, he was in his office when he heard an unusual thump and looked out into the reception area to see a Year 11 pupil on the floor.

"I walked out of the office saying, 'Serious head injury, call an ambulance'," he recalls.

Ashley Service, 16, had rushed out of a drama lesson in high spirits and leapt so high going down a flight of stairs that he hit his head on a protruding ledge above. The blow had sent him crashing backwards, with his legs out in front of him. "It was a silly bit of high spirits," says the head. But it resulted in a cracked skull.

The accident occurred early in the afternoon, at 2.40. By 2.50, Ashley had been collected by ambulance and taken to accident and emergency. Later, he was transferred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in central London. There wasn't a lot of speculation in school, recalls the head, although people who enquired about visiting him were informed that he wasn't in a fit state to receive them. Ashley's mother turned down the head's offer of a visit.

The news the next day was reasonably encouraging. "We knew he was deeply unconscious," says Terry Farrell. "Then we heard he was getting a bit better and likely to make a good recovery." It was all the more shocking then when the news filtered through the following day that the boy had died.

First to hear was a class teacher, from a relative of Ashley's. Pupils saw her upset and guessed the reason. Simultaneously, Terry Farrell had been told. The senior management meeting he had called was interrupted by the sound of grieving pupils.

Terry Farrell had encountered death at school before, and knew what to do. Although word was already out, he told year groups formally one by one. "It was very hard. We said a prayer for him," he says. "He was well-liked."

As head of a church school, he was able to get two priests in immediately to start counselling pupils. "Staff, I didn't worry about too much at first, but we had a meeting later in the day to explain everything to them," he says. By the end of the day he had also put out a press release to try to counter potentially damaging publicity. "We made it clear this was an accident, not something anybody was to blame for."

The reality of health and safety issues jostles for management space at a time like this with concern for shocked and grieving relatives, staff and pupils. Counsellors and priests were on hand at the school for the next week. Pupils wept and raged. "Some were hysterical and weepy, some were very angry," says Terry Farrell. At the same time, the ledge high above the stairs leading down from the hall was being measured, photographed and surveyed.

Half term arrived, and Ashley was buried. Two hundred people from the school attended the funeral, and money for a memorial was raised.

The most difficult days were yet to come for Terry Farrell though. Grief often translates into anger, and the boy's family wanted someone to blame for their loss. Despite the findings of both health and safety officials and the coroner's court that nobody was to blame for Ashley's death, they later tried to sue the school. A banner headline in the local paper backed their case.

Terry Farrell has been left further saddened, blamed by a family he did his best for. But death can leave sweetness. Honor Houghton, now moved on to a Hampshire school, keeps a photograph of Sheri Webb in her office.

"It made me realise what is important in life," she says. "National curriculum, yes. But at the end of the day, you're dealing with people. Something like this really does bring home how short life is. Why are we worrying about such petty little things?"

* Cruse (provides bereavement counselling)Tel: 0181 940 4818Cruse Bereavement Line, tel: 0181 332 7227, Monday-Friday 9.30am-5pmCruse Youth Line, tel: 0181 940 3131, Fridays 5pm-9pm; Saturdays 11am-6pmFor more details of the booklet 'When Tragedy Strikes', contact Miriam Brewis, Bedfordshire county adviser for PSE on 01525 405220

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