Death unites us and hardens our resolve to carry on

13th March 2009 at 00:00

The untimely deaths of two of our pupils within three weeks at the start of term left us in shock and despair. We were, and are, bereft.

Nobody prepares a school for managing such harrowing situations. There are no rulebook and no guidelines about what to do and how to keep going in such situations.

Unfortunately, we are well practised, having lost two other young people in less than eight months, and indeed many others, both pupils and staff, over the years. If memorials were GCSEs, we would be top of the league.

The whole school comes together to celebrate the lives of those we have lost and to reflect upon their own lives and futures. We can talk about being an "emotionally intelligent school" but we need every ounce of resilience to get us through.

News of the death of Nadvee, one of our Year 10 pupils, came to us while his year group was sitting a science exam. We broke the news to them afterwards and set about enabling and helping them to grieve. We had a special tutor period to allow the school to take in the bad news and to support each other.

Staff were equally shocked and saddened.

Nadvee was a popular teenager whose friendships crossed the racial, religious and gender divides. He was well known and well liked and respected by everybody. He was a potential 10 A* grades candidate with a wonderful future ahead of him. He was rarely ill, enjoyed both academic and sporting success and was also a talented performer.

He died unexpectedly of no particular cause other than sudden death syndrome. Nobody could understand why such a terrible tragedy happened. We could not make sense of it.

Muslim funerals usually take place very quickly after death, but in this case the post-mortem gave us a few days to decide how we could get all those pupils to the funeral who wanted to go. In the event, we managed to take 130.

In the midst of this, I remember thinking that seven or eight years ago racial tension had been so great it would have taken every ounce of persuasion I possessed to get non-Muslim pupils to visit a mosque, never mind attend a service. Our problem now was that we could not accommodate all those who wanted to go. In death, this young man reminded us of the journey we had travelled in terms of community cohesion.

The other young man who died, Sad, was one of our disabled students with complex needs and a degenerative heart disorder. When we first started to admit pupils who had previously attended special schools, we did not fully comprehend the need to prepare ourselves for frequent bereavements, despite warnings from those who knew from experience.

It was particularly difficult to explain to this boy's friends what had happened. Many of them have learning difficulties and many also have life-threatening conditions. We decided to go with the tested model that we use in all such cases. We concentrated on celebrating his love of life and all he had achieved.

Nadvee and Sad's deaths have been the worst part of what has been a very tough term so far.

We are expecting a visit from Ofsted any day now and it is imperative we can produce evidence to show that we do not deserve to keep our notice to improve.

While the autumn term was a long one, the spring term has seemed frighteningly short. In our bid to accelerate progress and improve exam results, every minute counts and we have had no time to lose.

So it was frustrating that problems with our ageing heating system meant we had to close the school for the first two days of term. This was followed by another two days' closure because of snow. Then the poor weather meant we had to keep pupils indoors at break and lunch times for an additional three days - which was stressful, to say the least.

We are avoiding concentrating solely on quick-fixes to improve the school because we need to ensure that the improvements we make are for the long term. However, the countdown to Easter still includes preparing for the inspectors' visit, organising targeted interventions, study support, one-to-one tutoring, close monitoring, after-school revision sessions, data gathering, lesson observations, scrutinising books and careful mentoring, as well as a touch of unadulterated panic.

Yet, in between such frantic activity, we will hold memorial events for both boys and make sure they are not forgotten.

We must remember that our core purpose is to prepare and arm young people for everything life throws at them. We have to teach them to learn to cope with tragedy and despair. We must teach them to be resilient and carry on, no matter what happens. We have to be clear about what really matters.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher, George Green's School, Tower Hamlets, east London.

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