FEAR cannot triumph despite tragic death of school’s shining light says Dani Garavelli
Ann Maguire was an amazing teacher. I feel qualified to say this, though I never met her, because her strength of character shines out of every smiling photograph and is reflected in every tribute pinned to the railings of Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, where she worked for more than 40 years.
After her death last week, those tributes arrived in their dozens from generations of children she had taught in the course of her career. Her former pupils, many of them now adults with children of their own, wrote heartfelt notes describing how she had nurtured, supported and inspired them to greater things. They reminisced about the fun and laughter shared on retreats, her sense of humour and the way she’d touched their lives.
The 61-year-old Spanish and RE teacher’s current pupils were just as appreciative of her dedication. She might have been weeks off retirement, but Ann Maguire wasn’t the type to tread water until she received her pension, otherwise she would have been at home enjoying a day off, as opposed to helping Year 11 prepare for their exams, when her attacker struck. Later, her pupils said she had wanted the best for all of them, not merely the most able. “I am going to get the best grades for you. All your hard work will shine on through us,” vowed one. “Descansez en Paz.”
In these days of educational upheaval, when schools seem to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy, inspections and the constant fear of sliding down the league table, it is easy to forget that the mark of a really good teacher lies not in their ability to improve their charges’ results – though that’s important too – but in their ability to make each and every one of them feel valued, to help them reach their potential, not merely academically, but as human beings. Teachers who care have the power to transform lives. Teachers such as Matthew Burton of Thornhill Community College whose efforts to help Musharaf Asghar overcome his stammer were captured so movingly in Educating Yorkshire. Teachers such as Ann Maguire.
On the rare occasion violence breaks out in a school – and it’s important to remember that this is the first killing of a teacher inside a British school since Dunblane, and the first by a pupil ever – there is a clamour for tighter security. This is only likely to increase after it emerged two schoolgirls have been arrested in connection with an alleged copy-cat attack in a school in Wales. One of the girls is said to have been found with a kitchen knife in her possession.
Could future attacks be prevented by drafting in more police officers, erecting fences and installing CCTV cameras and metal detectors, moves which, while effective, turn schools into fortresses? Such proposals should not be dismissed too lightly. There are, after all, inner city secondaries where the threat of violence is constantly simmering below the surface. In 2012, there were 4,372 alleged assaults on teachers in London. One survey found that more than 1,000 weapons, including guns and axes, had been found in schools in England and Wales over the past three years, and 800 in schools in Scotland. Some have already followed the US in introducing airport-style security arches. And if they believe an offence is likely to be committed, then who can blame them?
Still, close relationships like the ones Ann Maguire enjoyed with her pupils are built on mutual trust, and checkpoints and metal detectors and frisking breed hostility and suspicion among the very pupils who might be in most need of a kind word and a guiding hand. It would be terrible if her stabbing led not only to her loss of life, but also the loss of the supportive atmosphere she worked so hard to foster.
Thankfully, such was the force of Ann Maguire’s personality that everyone, from the school’s headteacher, Steve Mort, to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, seems confident she would have stood firm against any such measures, so immediate change is unlikely. Mort said the children’s welfare had always been her top priority. Clegg said “fear would have triumphed” if the “look, the feel, the ethos” of Corpus Christi was altered by turning it into a high-security environment. Teachers and pupils have to be protected, of course.
The imminent re-release of Learco Chindamo, who stabbed headteacher Philip Lawrence, to death outside the gates of St George’s RC Secondary in Maida Vale in 1995, is a reminder that, while rare, school killings are not unprecedented. The EIS is justified in calling for zero tolerance for those pupils who are found with a weapon on school premises and, when lower-level incidents occur, teachers ought to be able to rely on the support of their headteacher and the local authority. Meanwhile, every effort should be made to identify pupils who might be troubled or planning a violent act at an early stage – as apparently happened in Wales – and to make sure they are either referred for help or removed from the premises.
But the refusal to take knee-jerk action in the wake of the Corpus Christi tragedy is to be commended. Last week, Ann Maguire’s family described her as a “shining light, [who] brightened the world for so many of us”. One pupil said she always put everyone else’s needs before her own. How fitting, then, that her legacy will be to ensure that, despite her violent death, the school to which she devoted her life remains an open and welcoming community which continues to treat its pupils with the respect and humanity they deserve. «