When every head's nightmare came true

16th December 1994 at 00:00
Anthony Dore investigates the implications for schools of the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy court verdict, the first conviction for corporate manslaughter in the UK, which has provoked widespread calls for tighter regulation.

News of the Lyme Bay disaster first reached Southway school before the last survivors were rescued.

June Mowforth, the acting head, will never forget the moment her telephone rang just after she arrived home a few minutes before 6pm on the day of the tragedy. Teacher John Ellis, who was with the party at the St Alban's centre, told her of "a problem" with a canoeing trip, but reassured her that the pupils were being picked up by helicopter.

But within minutes, after telephoning Dorset police, she learned that one child had died. Every head- teacher's nightmare was about to come true.

Mrs Mowforth, who has since retired, went immediately to school to cater for the needs of parents, staff, social workers and the media. She remembers: "We followed the proper British custom and opened up the staffroom to make tea and coffee. At that point we had the list of eight canoeists but we didn't know which ones had died."

Just after nine o'clock came the confirmation that Simon Dunne was one of the dead and three others were in critical condition. She then called in the sixth-form tutors and prepared to break the news.

"We did it in pairs in one room. I didn't know how to do something like that. I, with Simon's tutor, broke the news to Sylvia (his mother).

"I sat down opposite her and Simon's tutor sat next to her. I put my hands on her arms and said: 'Mrs Dunne, you don't know me. I'm sorry, Simon was canoeing and got very cold and the rescue was so late.' We didn't know for two weeks that they had drowned rather than died of hypothermia." Two hours later a fax arrived from the police with the list of the dead, identified by the head of sixth form, Norman Pointer, who survived the seven-hour ordeal.

After a night without sleep, Mrs Mowforth arrived back in school at 7am, told the 57 staff what had happened and took assemblies in year groups to break the news. She recalls the stunned silence of the 940 pupils.

Lessons began in the second period as social services set up an "incident room" to help traumatised pupils and Devon County Council brought in more teachers in case staff were unable to cope. Despite this, Mrs Mowforth is proud that no one took a day off because of the stress of bereavement.

The most moving moment came four days after the disaster, as the sixth-formers carried the hundreds of wreaths, which had been left on the front steps of the school, in procession to a part of the grounds that later became a memorial garden. Keith Diffey, the deputy head, who had visited the survivors in hospital, was able to tell them of the heroism of the survivors, who kept each other's spirits up with prayers and songs.

Fortunately, only two more weeks of the term remained before the Easter break. Mrs Mowforth regarded the next few months as a "rite of passage", with a civic memorial service, funerals and a visit to Everton football ground to scatter Simon Dunne's ashes. But things were still not easy. "There were three gaps in the A-level English class, something everyone found it hard to come to terms with."

Mrs Mowforth sees her own departure as significant for the school, as was a change of name to Southway Community College, helping it to overcome the stigma of a "tragedy school". She says: "When I left they were able to make a fresh start." Mr Pointer, who applied for early retirement four days before the tragedy, also left the school and now teaches part-time. "This had just blown my life apart," he said after the trial.

The survivors left school this summer, but the tragedy affected their work and all performed poorly in their A-levels. Samantha Stansby is taking a two-year course at Plymouth Further Education College with a view to joining the services or police. The remaining three - Emma Hartley, Johanna Willis and Marie Rendle - have clerical jobs in the city.

The publication of the Devon County Council report on Lyme Bay, at the end of the trial, brought further anguish to the former headteacher. The school was criticised for failing to follow the county's guidelines in organising the trip, partly by not holding a parents' evening.

Mrs Mowforth believes the report is "a harsh description of what we had done", and insists that by visiting the centre before the trip they did more than other schools often do. "At the same time, the report says that what we did in no way affected what happened in Lyme Bay."

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