One year on it's still a day at a time

7th March 1997 at 00:00
"Wanting to get it right is the greatest pressure. That is what always goes through my mind every time there is a discussion or a decision to be made. But then I have got to accept that I just have to do the best I can."

That is one reflection among countless to which Margaret Doran gives voice as the numbing events at Dunblane approach their first anniversary. It is on her shoulders as head of services to schools in Stirling that one of the heaviest burdens has fallen. She chairs the interdepartmental review meetings held every six weeks to monitor the progress of the council's "strategic support plan" for the school.

The support is not just for pupils, parents and staff at Dunblane primary.It also applies to Newton primary, the new school in the town attended by some of the pupils and staff who transferred from the sister school, and to Dunblane High whose primary 7 intake is kept under close watch for any signs of difficulty.

An access officer has been employed by psychological services to support what Ms Doran refers to as "the injured children", a wide group which includes the brothers and sisters of those who died and the bereaved friends of the 16 murdered children as well as their siblings (Lord Cullen's report lists what he calls 17 "surviving victims").

The unique combination of circumstances at Dunblane has made management of the consequences a particularly sensitive and fraught task, according to Gordon Jeyes, the director of education. Thrust into responding to an unprecedented crisis just as Stirling Council was preparing to take over from Central Region and in the wake of a budget crisis, he observes: "The focus on the children and the school as a scene of tragedy makes it different from other scenes of tragedy like Lockerbie because the school is still a place of life and learning. The children and staff still have to work there."

The council has deployed two psychologists, two specialist teachers and a psychotherapist at Dunblane primary. They are linked to a support centre which has a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, social workers and community workers. A co-ordinator with a counselling background looks after the needs of the staff.

The sensitivity of the educational issues became evident at an early stage, as one of the two extra teachers was used to avoid creating a composite class for the depleted ranks of this year's primary 2. The other teacher is used for a multitude of purposes, from releasing teachers to attend meetings to additional support for learning.

The decision on whether or not pupils should be specially screened was also a matter for concern. Instead a system of continuous assessment was introduced. "It was a case of doing what we would normally do but more thoroughly, and keeping the parents informed at every stage," Ms Doran says.

The balancing act of attempting to convey an air of "business as usual" while responding to a uniquely traumatic experience is a constant preoccupation. "We are trying to do more systematically, and obviously more intensively, what best practice would normally require us to do," Ms Doran says, quickly reflecting on the word "normal". Care with language has become another essential skill.

Dunblane primary, whose roll is now just over 420 following the opening of the 220-pupil Newton primary, has had to become particularly skilled in dealing with what Mr Jeyes acknowledges have been "enormous challenges". It has had to rethink its relationship with the outside world and deal with the suffering in its midst; it will have to cope with anniversaries and the disruption caused by the #163;2 million refurbishment of the school which will stir more than dust.

"What some schools would expect to do over a period of time, Dunblane has had to do all at once," Mr Jeyes says. "The paradox is that, while we should be expecting a lot less from the school given what it has gone through, in practice we are demanding a lot more, from the quality of teaching and assessment to communication with parents."

His priorities are "communication, communication, communication". He frankly admits: "There were definitely points where we got that wrong. There were times when we thought we had built support for a decision and we - I - didn't check that out sufficiently."

Relations with the school board were not as strong as they should have been. "We got the partnership wrong in terms of the balance between supporting them and standing back. In retrospect, we did too much of the latter."

Another lesson is to "beware of generalised nouns - 'the bereaved', 'parents want', 'teachers think'. There will be a range of very individual views."

Ms Doran praises the "magnificent, superhuman efforts of the staff to deliver a quality education while coping with their own grief and supporting children and their families at the same time".

It is, Mr Jeyes says, a "healing programme" for all concerned.

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