Not an island

15th December 1995 at 00:00
No school is an island. However well defended a school may be against the outside world, it could not and did not help Philip Lawrence when he pursued trouble on to the streets outside St George's Roman Catholic School in London last Friday.

The fatal stabbing of a good and brave headteacher, in defence of one of his pupils, has rightly sparked off a fresh round of debate and dialogue about ways to prevent future tragedies. But it has also thrown up salutary reminders that schools cannot tackle such dangers alone, without the support of a stable society, and that head teachers play a crucial, vulnerable role.

Teaching is still, in spite of everything, a vocation, Cardinal Basil Hume told his stricken audience when he celebrated Mass at the school this week. How many members of the general public would have "had a go" so unhesitatingly, asked John Dunford, leader of the Secondary Heads Association. Both go straight to the heart of the matter. But it has taken bitter events to redress the balance in public perception against the prevailing rhetoric of teacher failure.

Philip Lawrence died a hero. Other heads and teachers regularly take similar risks in similar areas without a second thought, because their instinct, too, is to look after the children in their care on and off the school premises. It is because the duty of care (or control) cannot stop at the school gate that fortifying the school can only ever be part of the answer - and often a pretty inadequate one, as Pat Collings graphically describes in the next column. "What we must have is more support," echoed Michael Marland, another Westminster head caught by television just outside his territory.

The Education Secretary's crisis talks about safety measures with the teaching unions are an indication of Gillian Shephard's concern, and tightening up the law on knife carrying was an obvious quick response from the Home Secretary. But neither can, in themselves, go far enough towards turning the tide of an increasingly violent society as it takes over the streets and seeps into the schools.

Do we need guards on patrol outside inner city schools at home-time? Or should we expect the police to be doing the job of law-enforcement on the pavements, with funding channelled that way? After all, we do not want no-go areas for adults any more than we do for children. Are we finally sliding down the same inexorable slope as New York, where schools have locked doors, security passes and weapon scanners to keep drug dealing and other menaces out on the sidewalks?

Such measures may avert the worst in New York, but they cannot change the climate of fear without social change. Heads may struggle to turn around schools in areas of deep despair, but a secure environment does not stop their kids - if not their teachers - being shot dead on the streets outside. Surely it cannot be as bad as that here. But it must seem like it in Maida Vale now. The social problems which give rise to the violence of America's inner cities - the unemployment and bad housing, the breakdown of family life, the hopelessness of young people and the drug culture - are being replicated here in too many places. Schools can struggle to cope with the results of society's ills. Michael Howard can crack down on violent manifestations. But it will take a much more profound change in public policies and private morality to deal with the underlying causes.

Meanwhile, schools and teachers are at the front-line with their sticking plaster, often striving to impart moral values in defiance of the messages from home, fighting losing battles on pupil behaviour, and always up against the reality that they are on their own but driven by people and pressures from outside. Philip Lawrence was struggling to improve his school against the odds. Yet, paradoxically, the pupils he expelled to make St George's a safer place may have become somebody else's problem or added to the dangers on the streets.

It has always been hard for heads and governors to make that sort of judgment, but in the end their responsibilities have to lie with the well-being of the pupils and staff in their own school. What has been lacking is the assurance that someone else - another school, the education authority or social services - would tackle the social roots of the problem, rather than offer recruits to teenage gangs. Inevitably, the competitive ethos, the declining power of local authorities and growing social divisions have made the position worse.

Philip Lawrence was winning the hearts and minds of his pupils, but he knew that the school needed outside help to overcome the disadvantages of its community. No school can put society right on its own. What matters now is that the Government accepts the scale of the support that is needed for schools such as St George's and the neighbourhoods they serve. The National Commission on Education and the European Union have already told the Government so (see Margaret Maden, page 13). Can this tragedy inspire a change of heart and strategy, rather than short-term reactions?

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