Dead serious

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Death is an unwelcome visitor in any school, but when the unthinkable happens teachers need to deal with the subject openly, reports Elaine Williams

Tate Liverpool has hosted some innovative exhibitions, but surely few have been as unusual as the room full of coffins it put on show recently. There was a willow box; a glitzy gold "ecopod" with a feather boa interior adding a bit of glam to the final journey; a flat-pack cardboard exhibit; and a funky version with a cartoon narrative painted on the outside by a local art student. And, wandering among the artefacts, was a group of primary pupils and a nervous Year 6 teacher.

The display was part of the Marking Death in Schools conference held at the gallery last term, and Pat Pelling was there because, for the first time in her 10-year teaching career, she was having to cope with the death of a pupil in her class. Adam, aged 10, was killed in a road accident, and Mrs Pelling took some of his close friends with her to the Tate in the hope that they would benefit from a discussion about bereavement. But how in God's name, she was thinking as she toured the gallery, are they going to cope with this?

She had no need to worry. The pupils were fascinated, and found the coffins amusing rather than disturbing. They enjoyed workshop discussions about how they would organise their own funeral. Indeed, Keely Reid, 11, whose father died suddenly some months ago, welcomed the opportunity to talk about death as a rite of passage. "I wish I'd had the chance to talk about things like this before all this happened to me," she said.

Impressed with her pupils' positive reaction to their visit, with their ability to look death in the face, Mrs Pelling went back to Barlow Hall primary in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, determined to open up discussion with other pupils about how death should be marked.

With her head's support she turned the subject over to the school council.

They responded enthusiastically. They have all lost Adam, but how many children have, like Keely, also suffered the death of a parent, grandparent, a sibling, or chronic or terminal illness in their family? The council came up with the idea of placing a bench in the school playground where bereaved pupils could sit to show they need to talk; a team of pupils and teachers has been designated to give support.

Mrs Pelling admits that when Adam died she was unprepared for such a tragedy and acted on instinct, gathering his work, with poems and recollections written by his peers, to give to his family. "I didn't know if I was doing the right thing," she says. As it turned out, Adam's mother wanted his school to be involved in his funeral. Increasingly, when a pupil dies, parents, especially those with no religious commitment, are turning to the school for comfort and leadership; heads have to make many decisions - swiftly - at a time when emotions are running high.

It is recognition of this crucial role that has prompted the National Children's Bureau to draw up guidelines aimed at helping schools to provide better support for bereaved pupils (see below). Gill Frances, director of children's development at the NCB, who wrote the guidelines, says that schools are perfectly placed to offer bereavement support because often they are the only constant element in a child's life when a family member dies. "Death is a huge issue for everyone, but it's sidelined in many schools," she says.

Derek Bowden, a former headteacher and a member of Cheshire County Council's schools critical incidents team, says heads should ensure that in such an emotionally charged atmosphere they are not alone in making key decisions. Cheshire's team, highly praised by Ofsted, has 18 members, including educational psychologists, welfare officers, local education authority advisers and former heads, to give the necessary back-up to schools when tragedy strikes.

Mr Bowden says the effective management of a tragedy, enabling everyone to be involved in a shared experience, can strengthen bonds. But he stresses that no two schools will manage the death of a pupil in the same way.

"Heads will take account of the culture of the school and its community," he says.

At Parrs Wood technology college in Didsbury, Manchester, where two pupils have died in the past year, headteacher Rachel Jones sees the task of managing and marking death as an integral part of her job. The first pupil, aged 12, died of heart failure in the dining hall in front of her. The second, a 14-year-old boy, was hit by a car. Both deaths brought home to her the crucial role school plays for families in marking the death of a child, and for pupils in the grieving process.

The need for pupils to be able to express their feelings was overwhelming.

Pastoral staff were taken off teaching duties and school counsellors made available in the immediate aftermath. Books of condolences surrounded by flowers and pictures of the pupil were opened for students to write messages. PSHE and RE lessons were dedicated to allowing students to express their feelings.

In the second case, the family wanted the school to play a part in commemoration, and pupils' recollections and poems were displayed at the funeral with examples of the boy's work collected from across the curriculum. Ms Jones was also asked to give a substantive address. "This visible mark of respect from the school is crucial," she says.

Whenever a pupil or member of school staff dies, Parrs Wood plants a tree in a specially designated memorial garden, which pupils respect and which families are encouraged to visit. But Ms Jones says the school also covers the loss, change and rites of passage in separate periods dedicated each week to RE and citizenship. "For us, it's part of education for the whole child."

Few heads of secondary schools will escape immediate loss during their careers. But, more typically, death lurks in the background, the departed being family and friends unknown to the school community. According to the Child Bereavement Trust, more than 3,000 people between the ages of one and 19 die each year in the UK from illness or accident. Around 53 children under 18 are bereaved of a mother or father every day. Each year, around 5,000 families are bereaved by suicide.

Marking Death in Schools was organised by Arts Learning North West to coincide with the launch of a new edition of the Dead Good Funerals Book by Sue Gill and John Fox of Welfare State International, an arts company based in Cumbria that specialises in rites of passage. Funerals, they say, do not have to conform to outdated Victorian pomp.

Sue Gill, who addressed the conference, is convinced that consideration of death should be firmly on the schools agenda and that teachers are often inhibited from giving the subject proper treatment through their own embarrassment and misguided notions of protecting children. "Attitudes need to change a great deal. Children have amazing resilience and curiosity," she says. "It is so important for our society that death comes into the educational process."

In many ways, her wish is already coming true. Schools are increasingly open to marking death in imaginative ways. Books of condolences with attached mementos, poems and pictures are now common. Often these are given to the family. Sometimes students release balloons with messages; in the case of an accident or criminal offence they will lay flowers where a pupil has died. Pupils sing or read at funerals; heads give an address; a pupil's gifts are commemorated. At one school, where a pupil who loved dance died, her peers performed the dance she had choreographed for a GCSE project.

Erica Brown, head of research and development in education and care at Acorn Children's Hospice in Birmingham, says marking death is essential.

"We are creatures of ritual and ceremony. It's natural to mark a life that has been lost, and schools have to take it on. Increasingly, they are part of the extended family."

Welfare State International:; tel, 01229 581127. The Dead Good Funerals Book, by Sue Gill and John Fox (Welfare State International, pound;12.50). The National Children's Bureau guide for teachers - Childhood Bereavement: developing the curriculum and pastoral support, is available from, or tel: 020 7843 60286029 at pound;14, or pound;10 for NCB members


To help students come to terms with the death of a classmate or teacher, schools can:

* Produce books of condolences for the student's family, containing messages from staff and pupils

* Lay flowers where he or she died

* Create artwork and poems in memory of the pupil

* Perform the pupil's work as a tribute

* Release balloons with messages

* Plant trees, flowers and shrubs; dedicate some space to a memorial garden

* Commission artwork, benches and so on, as a memorial

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