Dealing with stress? It's what we do

25th July 2003 at 01:00
During the Iraq war, almost a quarter of Spokey Wheeler's pupils had parents serving in the Gulf. Here, we publish extracts from the diary he kept during a testing time for his school

March 16

Iraq sometimes seems more like a soap opera than a country on the brink of war. Anaesthetised by the acres of newsprint and newsreel, I turn the big players into a cast list. Introducing The Gulf Neighbours, starring Evil Saddam, cautious but kind Uncle Hans, rich but dim George, and his smart buddy with the big teeth, Tony. That is until today. The coalition, independent of the UN, announces its own deadline for Iraq to comply.

Tonight, I've woken up to a world in which war is not so much likely as inevitable. Now people I know may be wounded or die. Our school is near the military base in Aldershot, and lots of our kids have dads already out there, or waiting to be posted. The soap has been replaced by a potent reality.

Next morning

It's the senior team morning briefing at 8am. We've already thought about what to do in the event of war, helped by a meeting last week with Joe, ex-parent and garrison sergeant major, who's advised me on what questions to ask and what contacts to make. What do we need to do to look after our kids and prepare our staff and governors for stuff that might never happen? We agree we have to plan for the worst. And that means casualties, even fatalities. But we also need to plan for the daily reality for our kids; a reality of not knowing, of waiting and of worrying about what might never happen. I reassure the team - as well as myself - that during the first Gulf War in 1991, when I was teaching in Germany, no parent of a student in my school was killed. We agree on two main strategies: drawing up a critical incident plan in the event of serious injuries or fatalities to any of our parents; and making Wavell a haven of normality for the children.

March 18

I've almost finished a draft of the critical incident plan and give it to Norm, our head of educational inclusion, who turns it into a working document. We need to get the finished product out to the garrison team looking after family welfare as well as to our local feeder schools. This afternoon, Phil, the local senior education psychologist, visits. We'd asked him along to talk about stress. Apart from our morning briefings, this is the first time we've sat down together as a staff since the Coalition set the clock ticking. Being in the hall together makes Iraq and the war much more real. Phil is great. He matter-of-factly talks about stress; about how to identify it, cope with it, and help others going through it. I avoid focusing on one of our staff whose son is already out there.

March 24

It's morning briefing. Norm steps forward. "If you teach Chris or Sam, can you keep a special eye on them today. On Saturday, they saw someone murdered." As that sinks in, Amanda talks. "Simon isn't coping too well, so please look out for him over the next few days. He's trying to deal with the death of a close family friend." Then, at lunchtime, one of our ex-students - a 17-year-old - has a suspected heart attack near the school.

At the end of the day, I realise the staff have coped almost without breaking stride. It strikes me that schools are pretty good at dealing with stress because it is our daily bread. It's what we do.

April 10

The usual suspects troop in to my office at break to be quizzed over their failure to turn up for coursework catch-up. Among them is Gina, one of our most delightful Year 11 girls. After dismissing the predictable absentees, I ask her: "Is there a serious reason why you weren't there?"

"My dad's been in the Gulf, Sir, and I've had to collect my young sister from kindergarten after school. But he came home yesterdayI" Her smile starts at her chin and ends above her eyebrows.

I remember normal. "Check with your dad to find out when it's OK to make up the time." What a difference a day makes.

April 11

"What they need to tell us is that normal is howling because you're miserable." It's 8.30am and I'm lying face down as my physio works on my left calf with serious intent. I pulled it last week jogging and am determined to get fit to ski in Canada at half-term. Her husband's been out in the Gulf since January so, like our parents, she knows what normal is.

"Well, to begin with, it was OK because he was just away. But that all changed when the war started. Until then he'd emailed me every day and phoned often.

"For the first few days we exhausted ourselves watching wall-to-wall broadcasts. After that, things settled down and we began to get used to it.

You do get low and it comes in waves. So when the heating breaks down and you're on your own and you can't get it fixed, that's when you need to know that howling is just fine."

Back at school, I meet Gina in reception. "Sir, my dad says it should be fine to do my coursework catch-up session on Thursday."

"Well, tell him where you're going," prompts Margaret, our receptionist.

"She's going to see Prince Charles."

"Well, my mum was invited to tell him what it was like for the families and, now my dad's come home, we're all going to meet him."

In comes Steve, my deputy. "I knew your dad had come home because the head told meI" (arm wraps round Gina's shoulder). "We talk about you all the time." Huge smile from Gina before she heads for the door.

April 16

Get a bluey (an airmail letter) from an ex-student serving in Iraq. He's 20, the same age as my son. It's about meeting up with other kids in his year group also serving, but it's also about wanting to tell someone about what it means to be him, and to make contact with a bit of his past. Two phrases stick out. He says he's "out here trying to do some good in the world", and he urges me to "tell Mr Morris I've still got my shirt untucked".


For once, the end of term comes with a flight to Canada rather than a bug.

Here, the Sars virus is as big a story as the Gulf, and the reporting of the war on the American networks plays more like a feature than despatches from the front. So far, my interest has been in making sure we can support our students and prepare for the worst, although I know the war has been a topic for discussion and debate inside and outside classrooms. I would love to have been in the English lesson where the students dissected the White House's decision to rename the French fries on their menus to freedom fries after the action of the French government (for refusing to support the US's position on Iraq).

May 15

When I come in this morning, I see flowers at the base of a tree in our quadrangle. It was planted in memory of Stuart, a magic kid who died in his sleep two years ago. The flowers are to celebrate his birthday. He would have been 16. It's also our farewell assembly to Year 11. Terry, head of year, includes an ICT collage of our students' work. It ends with a single image of Stuart with the dates of his life.

The lessons of war

The news says the war's over, only it's not. Many of our parents are still out there. And there are more still in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It won't ever be over for our school. There will always be a war zone where some of our parents will be. That's been a big lesson for me. From now on, we need to track the children whose parents are on active service so all of us can be alert to their needs. But those needs aren't limited to children of military families. Since the start of the war, there have been three deaths of relations or close friends of Wavell students, none of them military. We have to help all children cope with the most challenging of crises, from illness, violence, divorce, even death. Inclusion isn't just a government agenda and an Ofsted criterion for effective schools. It is a way of life.

Spokey Wheeler is headteacher at the Wavell, an 11-16 comprehensive in Farnborough, Hampshire. His school serves most of the military families in Aldershot. Some names have been changed

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