Troubled legacy of violence and death

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Susan Young reviews a year marked by tragedy and disputes over the issue of disruptive pupils in class

The enduring legacy of 1996 must surely be the political and personal reverberations from a shocking series of murders, violence and turbulence in schools.

If handguns are indeed banned, if schools become fortresses, and morality and family values find new emphasis in society, it will be because of unimaginably hideous events which have taken place in and around the places where children as young as four should have been safe and secure.

Tellingly, no fewer than half of the six-strong shortlist for the BBC Today programme's personality of the year - Ann Pearston, Frances Lawrence and Lisa Potts - were there because of their actions during or after these events.

Schools no longer feel like havens. Since March 13, when misfit Thomas Hamilton went on the rampage at Dunblane Primary School with revenge in his heart and an armoury of guns in his sports bag, parents have kissed their children goodbye in the mornings with a slight twinge of unease.

It took Hamilton, suspected of having paedophile tendencies, just three and a half minutes to murder 16 of the 28 five and six-year-olds in the Primary One gym class that morning, as well as their teacher Gwen Mayor. It is believed the attack was in revenge for rumours he believed Dunblane staff had spread about him, but since Hamilton ended his attack by turning the gun on himself this will never be known.

The ramifications were worldwide. News crews from across the globe descended on Dunblane. In Australia, the story may have helped to inspire another murderous misfit to go on the rampage in a Tasmanian resort, killing 35.

In Wolverhampton, paranoid schizophrenic Horrett Campbell stuck newspaper cuttings from both massacres on the walls of his flat, planning his own attack on the nearby St Luke's Infants School. His trial heard that he thought the children had been laughing at him, and so he jumped over the wall with a machete and began setting about four-year-olds enjoying a teddy bears' picnic.

Nursery nurse Lisa Potts, who suffered a rain of blows while helping children to safety, has been recommended for a bravery award. Campbell, who was found guilty on seven charges of attempted murder, is currently being assessed in a secure hospital.

A more positive memory of Dunblane is the Snowdrop petition, signed by more than 700,000 people and credited with persuading the Government that it should legislate swiftly on handgun control despite the objections of the influential shooting lobby. Should the Bill go through next year, it will still be less rigorous than the legislation passed immediately after the Tasmanian massacre by the Australian government.

And the murder last December of headteacher Philip Lawrence also cast long shadows over the year, leading to the considered plea by his widow, Frances, for a new emphasis on citizenship in schools and family values at home.

Coinciding with great public concern over unruly pupils, Mrs Lawrence's heartfelt plea was eagerly seized on by politicians keen to show that they fully supported her views.

Even school trips were touched by violence with the unsolved murder of 13-year-old Caroline Dickinson in a French youth hostel as her schoolfriends slept around her. The hostel, situated deep in the countryside, had been used by Launceston school before and had been regarded by the French authorities as so safe that no one thought twice about the policy of unlocked doors.

Even leaving aside the tally of the dead and the injured, it has not been a good year for schools. If the defining image of 1996 was the class photograph of Dunblane's doomed Primary 1, then the runner-up must be the identikit form of various naughty pupils whose exclusion and forced return to school sparked increasingly hardline action from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and tabloid gloom about the youth of today.

NASUWT leader Nigel de Gruchy was ubiquitous on news programmes, becoming a harbinger of doom if sighted at school gates. It was certainly his year: the campaign run by his union for some 20 years against pupil indiscipline finally caught the public attention with the antics of Richard Wilding, Matthew Wilson and, most spectacularly, a claimed total of some 60 miscreants at the notorious Ridings School in Halifax.

The personal and public ramifications have been widespread. Threatened industrial action at The Ridings brought the school to the attention of the Office for Standards in Education and, unfortunately, Panorama as well. Shortly after the inspection - and the covert filming - began, the situation at the school had deteriorated so far that inspectors recommended it close while the situation calmed.

When it re-opened, it was with a temporary new head and deputy, a dreadful inspection report and the threat of a Government hit squad if matters did not swiftly improve.

The same week Manton junior school in Nottingham was closed by head Bill Skelly when his NASUWT teachers refused to teach 10-year-old Matthew Wilson, who had been excluded, reinstated, backed by governors and taught in isolation for six weeks. Eventually, Matthew's mother took him to another school.

Richard Wilding, at the centre of another NASUWT row, is now in a special unit, his father killed by a heart attack at the height of the publicity.

Questions were asked about the way in which the union's potential flashpoints became public knowledge, with suspicions that a campaign was being orchestrated to attract potential members from rival unions.

The end result of all this? Presumably, an eternal stigma attached to the names of the children involved - who legally could not have been named if their offences had been serious enough to warrant court action - and a full-scale moral panic about juvenile delinquents, poor parenting and discipline.

And the ammunition for the Government to stiffen up its Education Bill with lots of disciplinary measures, including home-school contracts, more detention, longer periods of fixed-term exclusion and even a flirtation with caning. Roll on 1997.

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