You never know what’s just around the corner. Sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise. Too often, perhaps, it’s something horrendous.
On Monday I got home from work to learn of the horrifying murder of 61-year-old teacher of Spanish, Anne Maguire, stabbed to death at her work in Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds. She’d taught for 40 years. A 15-year-old boy, one of her pupils, is in custody.
As I walked home I’d been pondering this week’s column. The idea I’d developed was usurped by this tragedy. How can I, a lifelong teacher, not comment? Yet how can I find anything new or different to say?
Murder, the ultimate act of violence, is a terrible crime. Somehow it appears still worse when the victim is someone whose life and vocation is to work for others.
We’re outraged when doctors or nurses are killed in war zones or by terrorist activity. When a pupil turns on a teacher there is a similarly shocking sense of wrong.
We demand answers. Will we find that the murderer was known to various agencies, that there was an awareness of risk but the school hadn’t been informed? Or was it a one-off, crazed event in the life of a troubled teenager?
Whatever stories may emerge or mistakes be uncovered, they won’t bring back a much-loved and valued teacher.
So are teachers nowadays generally at risk of assault and murder? Are schools becoming war zones? I’m certain they aren’t: and teachers’ leaders have lined up to reassure the public. To be sure, we know that poor behaviour in schools is the major inhibitor of rising standards. And teacher unions at Easter highlighted the cyber-bullying of teachers committed by some pupils and even parents.
But neither problem, however serious, equates to the taking of a life. Do we therefore need rafts of additional security in schools? Do more schools than the few already doing it need to have US-style security at the door and metal detectors to trap pupils bringing weapons in? I don’t think so.
A leading campaigner against knife crime, a mother driven to make changes by the loss of her own son in a stabbing, was interviewed by Radio 4 on Monday.
She said that schools need to stop denying the fact that knives are now routinely part of school life. I hesitate to disagree with someone in her position, but I believe I must.
The media have been quick to reassure us that murders in UK schools are incredibly rare. The last school homicide was the so-called Dunblane massacre of 1996 when a gunman, Thomas Hamilton, killed 16 children and a teacher at Dunblane Primary.
After Dunblane, and other less grievous events, schools unsurprisingly looked to their security. Some, particularly those in urban settings, are now surrounded by large fences and security gates.
Sadly, such reinforcement often appears to set a barrier between a school and the community of which it is surely an integral part. Fortunately, the widespread replacement of old school buildings with new has created opportunities for architects to focus access on a single secure entrance without creating the impression of a prison.
A sensible level of school security is something we must take seriously: we must live with it as we do at airports. But let’s keep this in proportion. Schools are safe places. Outrages such as Dunblane or that of last Monday remain extraordinarily rare.
My sense, in these early days after the event, is that kneejerk reactions won’t be welcomed. Media or politicians’ demands for pupil searches, metal detectors and heavy security would bring undesirable consequences, seriously eroding the trust between teachers and pupils that’s vital to a happy, well-balanced school.
Better to avoid extreme responses, and concentrate on this very real human tragedy. That really is an incalculable loss, a terrible bereavement and something that demands the thoughts and prayers of all of us.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.