The killing of a teacher in a Leeds classroom this week is, both, appalling and unspeakably sad.
Teachers do not always get a ‘good press’ but we should never forget how much we need them and how much they touch the lives of us all. There is no job that is more important or, indeed, more worthwhile. When a decent, dedicated and outstanding teacher is killed in her classroom and, allegedly, by one of her pupils, we may be excused for wringing our hands in despair.
A light has been extinguished. Are schools falling apart? The answer, of course, is, “No”.
There are around 24,000 schools in England, alone, and the vast majority are safe and secure places. The alleged killing of a teacher by a pupil in a classroom is unique in the UK. It is for this reason that a series of teachers’ leaders have spoken out strongly against any potential ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. Rightly, they have sought to allay parental fears.
And, yet, a seed of doubt has been sown. All events are unique until they are repeated. Are we burying our heads in the sand to imagine that what happened in Leeds will not be repeated one day, that it will not always be unique? More importantly, are we disinclined to recognise that Leeds could be a symptom, albeit a frightening one, of an underlying problem?
Commentators have reassuringly informed us that, in England, only 250 pupils were caught in school with weapons in 2013 and that this was down on 326 in 2012 and 365 in 2011. 250 pupils carrying weapons into the classroom is concern enough but matters look worse if a fifth of crimes are going unrecorded by police, as now seems to be the case according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Schools are, in any case, reluctant to report cases of violence to the police. In addition, it is naïve to suppose that most weapon-carrying pupils are getting caught. They are adept at concealment.
A few days ago it was reported by an anti-knife crime charity that, among youngsters in one school, two thirds of pupils admitted to routinely carrying a weapon. Whether we like to admit it, or not, there is a weapon-carrying culture among many young people. This can create a climate of fear and intimidation in some schools that passes well under the radar of police statistics.
So, too, does low level disruption and low-level violence. Sometimes this is a consequence of older pupils becoming disengaged, having failed to master the basics of literacy and numeracy at an early age. Our prisons are full of such people. The battle against violence in schools needs to begin with the effective teaching of infants.
Decisions about security should be made locally by schools in discussion with the communities they serve. Some of our schools already have US airport-style screening. This should not be condemned or seen as unacceptable outside ‘gang land’ inner city areas. Remember 1996, remember 16 children and a teacher, remember rural Dunblane.
Few of us would wish to make schools into fortresses but our greater priority is for children and their teachers to be safe.