Death in the classroom

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Sex, pregnancy and birth are all considered suitable topics for teaching in schools. But children are on their own when it comes to learning about death and bereavement. On the third anniversary of the Hagley mini-bus tragedy, Gerald Haigh asks what is being done to break the last taboo.

A special mass was held last Sunday in remembrance of the teacher and 12 pupils from Hagley Roman Catholic High School in Stourbridge who died three years ago when their mini-bus crashed on the M40 after a school trip to London. The children and their music teacher, Eleanor Fry, were returning from a visit to the Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall.

Three years on from the tragedy, Hagley's headteacher, Paul Hill, believes that in marking the anniversary he must attempt to achieve a balance between compassionate remembrance and the turning of a page. "A school is a dynamic community, and the reality is that we have to move forward," he says.

At the mass, the theme of prayers and readings was "to celebrate that the children were with us, and that we are never going to forget them". The school itself has many physical memorials. "So many pointers and reminders," says Paul Hill. "The stained glass window, the memorial garden, the photographic display." By next spring Hagley will also have a new music block, partly paid for by public donations made in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Andrew Murray, a Hagley governor whose 13-year-old daughter Katie was killed in the accident, is well aware of the school's need to move on. "There comes a point where it doesn't mean the same. New children come, teachers change. It's all part of living," he says.

At the same time, it is clear that after any bereavement - whether communal or private - there will be people who cannot move on until they have begun to accept what has happened, and that this can take a long time. For them, too quick an attempt to return to normality may be inappropriate and distressing.

Steve and Liz Fitzgerald, for example, who lost their daughter Claire, aged 13, that November night, help to run the Bishops Wood Group, which gives the bereaved Hagley families and friends the chance to meet in a tranquil country setting. On the premises of a nearby nature reserve, they talk - if they want to - and express their feelings through art, drama, music and writing. Their own collection of writing, for which they are seeking a publisher, reveals how grief runs deep and long. "Even if I stay in your lesson," one pupil wrote, "I will learn nothing because my mind is constantly occupied with problems that I cannot deal with."

Multiple tragedies are thankfully rare, but death is not. Hagley itself has lost another pupil this year through a terminal wasting illness. Even more common is the child who has suffered loss, be it of a parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, or beloved pet, who brings to school a hurt that cries out to be acknowledged and respected.

And yet there is a feeling that many schools do not handle childhood grief and bereavement well. Schools are part of society after all, and for today's society death is "the last taboo".

Professor Oliver Leaman, of John Moores University, who studied the way that Merseyside schools dealt with the Hillsborough football ground tragedy of 1989, suggests that, "If you're a teacher, part of it is being very focused on the future, which makes death very worrying. And of course teachers are middle class, and middle class people don't talk about death very much." (He found that some Merseyside schools with affected pupils "completely ignored" the Hillsborough disaster.) But teachers, explains Professor Leaman, are in the front line when children are in distress. "For a lot of children, school is therapeutic; they have good relationships with their teachers, who can be effective in helping them. If teachers do not respond, then children begin to wonder whether their own feelings are appropriate. There isn't a right or wrong way to grieve. There is the way that is appropriate to the particular child. "

Grace Jordan, of the Dove Centre, which offers bereavement care in North Staffordshire, emphasises the unevenness of children's reactions to death. "If you drew a graph of someone's grief, that of a child would have many more peaks and troughs than you'd find in an adult. It shows in behaviour. A child can be very distressed and then kicking a football the next moment."

Children who are not dealt with sensitively can stifle their feelings, because, for example, they want to spare the feelings of others. "An awful lot of children protect their parents," says Grace Jordan. "They say, 'Mummy's been crying enough and I don't want her to be more upset'."

Next week the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children publishes the results of an initiative called "Talking Blues", which found that loss and separation are major causes of anxiety and stress in children's lives. When a child's world has fallen apart, schools, with their sense of familiarity and security, can make a big difference, often in uncomplicated but kind and thoughtful ways. As the report says: "Quiet sympathy and basic normality is what most children in this situation want."


Recognise that children react to bereavement in different ways - for example, withdrawal, anger, panic, fear, inattention. Age is a factor. Young infants find it difficult to see death as permanent. Older infants and younger juniors gradually become aware of the finality of death, and may be curious about the details. Older juniors and secondary pupils begin to see death as adults do.

* Tackle the issue. Tim Gisborne, a primary teacher on secondment to the grief support group Winston's Wish, strongly believes that, "Saying nothing gives the message that this major event is not important; that the teacher cannot do anything; that everything is hopeless.'' Grace Jordan, of the Dove Centre, says the same. "You can't do any harm if you address it, even if only to say privately that you know what's happened and that you are there if needed. '' The support pack from Winston's Wish says,"Obtain the permission of the bereaved child before informing them (the rest of the group), then tell them in the presence of the bereaved child."

The NSPCC says a key principle is to help the bereaved "through the pain rather than trying to remove or avoid it". A child's class may want to help in practical ways - by sending a card or writing a letter. "Encourage them not to avoid friends out of embarrassment."

* Do not be too ready to believe that a child is recovering well. Grace Jordan of the Dove Centre explains that "because adults are uncomfortable with their own distress, they want the child to be OK, and they say things like 'He's coping wonderfully', without enquiring whether he is crying at night, or protecting the feelings of adults."

It may take a child months even to accept what has happened. The word "numb'' comes up frequently in their descriptions.

* Give honest answers. Grieving children deserve them. Don't be embarrassed to use the word "death''. The support pack from Winston's Wish says, "Phrases such as 'lost', 'sleeping', 'gone away' imply that the dead person chose to go somewhere without the child, and the child may think it was their fault. "

Some of the children who meet at Sunrise, a child bereavement centre in the West Midlands, wrote to the local crematorium because they wanted to know exactly what happened there.

* Include death in the curriculum. Oliver Leaman, with other people working in this field, strongly believes that schools should teach about death, just as they teach about sex, birth and marriage. "It is remarkable that this common feature of humanity, the fact that we will all eventually die, is entirely ignored by schools.'' There is lots of international experience. High school courses in the US deal with death; Israel includes death education in its teacher training.

Advice from the group Compassionate Friends reminds teachers how even the youngest children can be told about death. "Use such opportunities as a fallen leaf, a wilted flower, the death of an insect, bird or class pet to discuss death as part of the life cycle," it says. "Talk together as a classroom family."

The NSPCC says, "Learning to deal with loss is a natural part of growing up."

* Put it on the training agenda. It is a mistake to believe that there are no resources to help teachers. Some of the available books and resource packs are listed elsewhere in this article, and each of them has its list of publications and support agencies.

The agencies will sometimes send trainers out to schools - ask about this. What is lacking is not so much resources as the will to tackle the subject. Grace Jordan, for example, finds that while heads may acknowledge that there is a need for training in death and bereavement, "it's not a big priority, so they ask me to do an hour in a twilight session when you really need several days".


Five years ago, Sandra Robinson's husband was killed on the building site where he was working. It was a savage blow, made worse by the fact that the news arrived without warning while Sandra and her four children (Anita, 7, David, 10, Simon, 15, and Christine, 16) were at home together. The children witnessed Sandra's instant despair and denial, and this has undoubtedly contributed to their continuing difficulties.

Simon, now 20, and the only one of the children who felt able to talk to me, has very clear memories of how his secondary school dealt with the news next day. "While we were still waiting to be told to sit down, the form teacher told the whole class what had happened. Afterwards she did have a word with me and say that I could see her at any time."

Such was the school's formality that Simon observes: "I never really felt that I could let my guard down, or actually go and see her." His work, inevitably, came almost to a standstill: "I stared out of the window for four months. "

A few months later, though, he went to a further education college, where "the head of department quietly told me that he knew I had been bereaved, and just said that he was there for me. He was brilliant at spotting if I was bad tempered or upset, and he'd just say a word to me."

Most worrying of all for Sandra is Anita's continuing failure, five years on, to come to terms with the loss of her father. "She's locked in at how she was when she was seven," says her mother. "She won't let me out of her sight and rings up from school to say she's ill and wants to come home."

The names of this family have been changed.


Local authority educational psychologists may or may not be equipped to advise schools on bereavement.

Local organisations exist, and they usually know each other, so a call to one of those listed will lead to others. Where there is a local hospice, this can be a good starting point.

* Winston's Wish, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, Great Western Road, Gloucester GL1 3NN. Tel:01452 394165. Winston's Wish organises residential camps for bereaved children, and supports schools in its area. They produce a pack which includes a very practical "Strategy for Schools". Please send Pounds 5 to cover costs.

* Sunrise (support in the West Midlands for all those affected by the death of a child), 83 Stirling Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. B16 9DB.

* Steve and Liz Fitzgerald (information on Bishops Wood Group), Bannut Tree House, Lye Head, Bewdley. DY12 2UW

* The Dove Centre, 2 Wellington Road, Hanley, Stoke on Trent. ST1 3QH. Tel: 01872 202156. Information, and in-service work in North Staffordshire.

* The Compassionate Friends, 6 Denmark Street, Bristol. BS1 5DQ. 0117 9292 778.

* International Organisation of Bereaved Parents (some local groups) Excellent short publications.

* CRUSE. 126 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey. TW9 1UR. Tel: 0181 940 4818 Support for all bereaved people. See phone book for local groups. Leaflets, a teacher's pack.

* NSPCC, "Talking Blues: when you lose someone you care about", a set of 50 bookmarks and one teacher's leaflet costs Pounds 2.50 from NSPCC, 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH. Tel: 0171 825 2775.

* Acorn Children's Hospice, 103 Oak Tree Lane, Selly Oak, Birmingham. B29 6HZ. Tel: 0121 414 1741. Produces a superb pack for schools with a large collection of pamphlets and reprints on family grief and bereavement. It has been distributed free to Birmingham schools. Other schools should write to Jayne Adams, education liaison officer at Acorn. Donations welcome. Acorn also runs courses for professionals. Details on request.


Death and Loss - Compassionate Approaches in the Classroom by Oliver Leaman. Cassell.

The Forgotten Mourners by Sister Margaret Pennells and Susan C. Smith. Jessica Kingsley.

Good Grief 1 and Good Grief 2 (for working with, respectively, under-11s and over-11s). By Barbara Ward and Associates. Jessica Kingsley.


Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Collins. This is the one usually mentioned first by primary teachers. A warm and forward-looking story.

Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney. Mowbray. Excellent for younger children, dealing gently with the permanence of death.

Someone Special Has Died from St Christopher's Hospice, 51-59 Lawrie Park Road, London SE22 6DZ. For secondary pupils.

The Charles Barber Treatment by Carole Lloyd. Walker Books. For older secondary pupils. A boy's mother dies.

Each of these books has further reading lists and addresses of organisations.

Ask your school library service if it has a reading list on this subject.

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