What does the tragic death of Anne Maguire tell us about our schools?

Fiona Millar's picture
It is a terrible story. A teacher stabbed to death in front of her pupils. Tragic for her family, tragic for her school, the community and for the pupils who had to witness it.

A lot will no doubt be written in the next 24 hours about what Anne Maguire's death means so here are a few thoughts from me.

If anything positive at all can come out of this horrific act it is that we have been reminded how rare very serious acts of violence are in our schools. The Philip Lawrence story, which many papers have referenced today, is etched clearly on my mind. He was the head teacher of one of the schools close to where I grew up when he was stabbed outside the front gate.

My mother was a governor of the school at the time.  I can still remember her running down the street in the dark in great distress to tell me about it. It was a terrible period for St George’s but it was also almost 20 years ago and the school recovered slowly but surely.

There have been very few incidents like this since then, and of those most involved pupils stabbing or fatally assaulting other pupils. The most recent data from Ofsted suggests that behaviour and safety is good or outstanding in 85% of schools.So schools are in general safe and caring environments.

But perhaps the more poignant but also inspiring message from the Corpus Christi tragedy is the depth of love and affection her pupils felt for Anne Maguire.

Current and former pupils have talked of her being a mother figure, they have described how her care for her pupils went beyond the school gate and into their subsequent lives. This is what good schools and great teachers are about; strong relationships that enhance teaching and achievement, but also nourish young people as human beings and make a mark on them for life.

Are there lessons? Of course. As many people have said, eternal vigilance is needed. We don’t know enough about why this young man felt the need to act in this way but it is sadly the case that a lot of young men now do carry knives (more than many people realise probably).

They do this not because they have murderous instincts, or because they want to commit violent acts in school, but because it makes them feel safe on the streets especially if there are is a gang culture which may be invisible to the rest of us, but deeply troubling to adolescent boys in those communities.

Often these boys are vulnerable themselves and don’t realize the danger they put themselves in school by carrying weapons. This is almost certainly an instant permanent exclusion offence in schools and that too has life-changing effects.

Is the answer to scan and search? I don’t think so. That would break what is in most cases a vital bond of trust between schools, pupils and their families. A better approach is to keep educating children on what the impact of these actions can be.

On the radio last night I heard the mother of a boy whose son had been stabbed to death. She has made it her mission to travel round other schools and communities to discuss what that terrible event meant in her life; the real pain and lasting damage it caused her and her family.

Sadly she said some schools don’t welcome her advances. Why? Because they are scared of the implications of such a talk – sending such a message to other families in our era of heightened parent choice might be too detrimental to the schools reputation.

That is something we need to get over. Knife crime, accidental or deliberate, could affect any family at any time. The fact that young people often feel so unsafe is a problem for society, not just for schools, which are often safe havens from a perilous world outside.

If any good comes from Anne Maguire’s death it will be a realisation that we need a grown-up open discussion about this in all schools, to encourage young people to hear the possible consequences of such actions and to put that before the possible reputational damage to our schools.
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Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 29/04/2014 - 13:32

As the boy's context becomes public the debate may surely drift towards the stresses of the Key Stage 4 academic demands and the impact of parenting on vulnerable children and whether all schools do enough to support children and identify mental illness early enough.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 29/04/2014 - 18:24

I think this is a very important point. If there are serious mental health issues, schools must be able to help and support the children and their families but often appropriate diagnosis isn't given and the CAMHS services are very stretched at the moment.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 29/04/2014 - 13:40

I am completely taken aback by by FG's article in The telegraph where he writes "I have found that you can divide badly behaved students into three categories: the yobs, the crooks and the psychos",
If even FG can write such stuff then it certainly consolidates my belief that schools don't understand mental illness in children.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 30/04/2014 - 13:53

Rosie, I fear that you have atomised what Francis wrote. I may not agree with all of it but that doesn't deflect from the fact that it had a broad balance rooted in personal experience.

You say, "schools don’t understand mental illness in children" and "the impact of parenting on vulnerable children and whether all schools do enough to support children and identify mental illness early enough", which I've no doubt is largely accurate, but this raises the question, just what is it reasonable for schools and teachers to be held to account and responsible for? There are some immediate answers e.g. education, teaching and learning, attainment, preparation for the next steps, health and safety/safeguarding, but just how far can it be a reasonable expectation that they also become professional or quasi psychoanalysts and/or personality profilers?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/04/2014 - 14:41

This is a terribly sad story. Some commentators have inevitably called for tougher regimes in schools with screening etc. But this only alienates the majority of pupils who behave in school.

I, too, heard the mother on the radio talking about how she goes to schools to talk to children about the possible consequences of taking weapons into school. However, I wasn't surprised when she said some schools didn't want to invite her in. For some schools that would be like admitting there was a problem (even though it's a potential problem in all schools) and that must be kept from parents. The school that is honest and admits it's a potential problem risks parents choosing to send their children to schools who pretend it doesn't affect them.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 29/04/2014 - 18:58

Following on from your last point the school involved has half the FSM level of the adjacent secular secondaries and would never expect a problem. This isn't about weapons in schools ;it will surely turn out to out to be the tragic story of a bright but troubled and socially marginalised child whose desperate action has been aggravated by several factors.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 30/04/2014 - 06:47

Are you suggesting that only children on FSM would be likely to carry knives? I really don't think you can make these sorts of generalisations, either about young people and weapons, or mental health issues. Moreover if you go back to the Philip Lawrence story you will see that it was indeed about a gang culture and casual weapon carrying, and that was 20 years ago. The problem in London at least, is probably even worse today.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 30/04/2014 - 12:00

Fiona, I am certainly not suggesting that only FSM children would be likely to carry knives, in fact I would be one of the last people to do so ; I don't really follow how you would draw that conclusion except that we probably share the opinion that schools with challenging cohorts appreciate and face up and manage the risks of weapons whereas socially selective schools ( as the faith VA schools in Leeds are) maybe wouldn't ( that was my point).

but I understand that the media and public mindset would have that as its first assumption . Would you not agree that if this had happened in a challenging school the media would be howling their standard generalisations and bile against single parent families, gang culture, benefit families etc etc ?

P.S. I haven't made any generalisations about mental health issues; I've just made an intutive prediction which points out that there are two victims and traumatised families involved.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 30/04/2014 - 12:05

I would suggest no further conjecture on this tragic matter ....the national media are indulging in sufficient debate and conjecture , both professional and otherwise for everyone.

FJM's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 18:32

I don't think it tells us anything much at all, as it is, thank goodness, such a very rare event. I do not think that FSM, Key Stage 4 academic demand etc have anything to do with it.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 08:22

I have been shocked and dismayed all week since the tragic stabbing of Anne Maguire. I have read all the reasoned and thoughtful arguments here and in the media. But I'm afraid I cannot accept the view that such incidents are thankfully rare. It seems to suggest somehow that that's OK then?

I note that the Leeds school was quick to defend themselves in the media, insisting that they are 'safe' school. No, they are not a safe school. By all accounts, this was not an in-the-moment killing. A student with a grudge planned to stab Mrs Maguire. He was able to enter school unimpeded carrying a knife. We know that knife carrying is quite common in schools and therefore schools can never be described as 'safe' places either for students or for staff.

While speculation goes on, a family has lost a loving mother/wife. No amount of 'thankfully it's rare' will bring Anne back.

We should continue to be outraged till teachers and students are properly protected in schools.

Brian's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 08:30

I'm sorry Georgina but how can you not accept that this tragedy is rare, when it quite clearly is. And I'd be grateful if you could point me to the evidence that knife carrying is 'quite common' in schools. Even the more hysterical elements of the press have refrained from exploiting this isolated incident as evidence of violent anarchy in our schools.

FJM's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 20:41

Who has said that it is OK? We are all shocked and filled with sympathy for all those involved, but it is rare, the first such attack for twenty years. The only way to stop pupils from taking knives into schools would be to have metal detectors and bag searches at every entrance \all day long. This would not stop a child from taking a knife from the dining hall after lunch to launch an attack or using any other suitable object as an offensive and possibly lethal weapon.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 08:38

Georgina, You say, "By all accounts". My question is 'all of what/whose accounts'? I am no mathematician but when I even scratch the surface as to the number of schools in all phases in the UK and consider the number of pupils that represents, then, the number of fatalities is minimal to say the least and the number of incidents involving stabbings and shootings is 'rare'.

We are all shocked and appalled at this tragedy but that is no reason for knee jerk emotivism and wild unevidenced speculation and unfounded assertions.

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 09:21


Leicestershire has a problem. I do not know whether Leicestershire is in or out of line with the rest of England.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request to Leicestershire Police revealed that in the past three years, 51 pupils have been caught with weapons – including 17 last year.

As well as the 28 knives recovered by officers, there were 10 ball bearing guns, bleach, a hammer, pepper spray and an axe.


Brian's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 10:11

I certainly wouldn't want to diminish the importance of the issue, Barry. One weapon is too many. But if we take the number of pupils in Leics secondary over the last three years and the number of 'weapons' incidents reported to police we find that 0.026% of pupils were involved . I agree that's 0.026% too many but it does put the 'problem' in perspective and the Leicester statistics are the second highest in the country (some police authorities didn't respond though).

(I've excluded all primary age pupils, although that may not be appropriate. In my many years as a head the only time I had to deal with a pupil with a knife it was a six year old girl.)

Of course, Georgina, we all regard this as a tragedy and our thoughts are with the family. I'm sorry schools 'jumping to defend themselves' doesn't do it for you but the purpose of schools explaining that knife attacks and threats aren't a feature of their daily lives is to put some facts forward, not to 'do it' for anybody.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 11:10

Brian, We were travelling the same path and sentiments.

Barry, Another context for the FOI figures is to consider that in Leicester there are:

35 Secondary and well over 230 Primary Schools

This suggests that the incidence is not high and may not be representative across the board but rather focused on specific parts of the county. I've included Primaries because I do not feel that younger pupils can be discounted - particularly in Y5 & 6.

Georgina, With the greatest of respect I suggest that one can place too much store by "media" reports. Not all are factual or balanced. Thus if a few pupils allege that the assailant didn't like or hated the teacher media hype takes over and it suddenly escalates from a moment of madness to a premeditated/planned attack. The fact is that no one knows why or what triggered it.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 08:57

Brian and Andy, I can accept that this tragedy is rare. I'm sorry if my meaning was not clear. I was trying to make the point that the 'thankfully rare' argument seems rather dismissive and therefore seems to me to minimise this appalling killing.

Andy, my 'by all accounts' assertion was based on all of the media reports. Maybe they were all wrong but as I understood it, this was not an in-the-moment attack.

Regarding my point about knife carrying, Fiona states ,"Knife crime, accidental or deliberate, could affect any family at any time. The fact that young people often feel so unsafe is a problem for society, not just for schools, which are often safe havens from a perilous world outside. "

Too many students do carry knives for their own safety. I'm sorry that I didn't look up the facts so that I could refrain from being emotional and offering unfounded assertions. I'm afraid too many teachers (I don't have the %) are abused in schools and in the social media and 'too many' children are bullied.

But we could go on and on with getting our facts right. This misses my point: yes, I am emotional and sad for this one woman and her family. I don't know them but my heart goes out to them; but schools jumping to defend themselves just doesn't do it for me. Sorry.

FJM's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 20:43

You are right about the abuse of teachers on so-called 'social media' (anti-social in many ways). Aggressive parents are not unknown and sub-lethal violence far from rare, so I take your point.

Dave Moore's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 21:24

I would qualify " one weapon too many" as "one weapon in the hands of a seriously disturbed and troubled teenager too many".

Americans demonise the perpetrators of their high school tragedies; we in Britain have never had to and we should not begin now .

Could the rarity of similar incidents in British schools actually be an accolade for British schools and our integrated teenage mental health and pupil support systems? Could this tragedy have been avoided ?...possibly not...but how can we quantify the near misses that been averted ? In adult life estranged parents murder their children in spite of their spouses concerns to police.....maybe our schools are actually the safest place to be.

FJM's picture
Fri, 02/05/2014 - 21:49

The USA is a much more violent society than ours. As for child murder, many such crimes are carried out by those known to their victims, whether one parent killing his children after a divorce and then killing himself (or herself, women do this too), the ultimate act of selfishness; or the latest partner wiping out evidence of his current partner's previous love-life. So what you say is true, schools are relatively safe. Absolute safety is impossible in any circumstances.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 03/05/2014 - 06:56

FJM - you're right that an absolute guarantee of safety is impossible anywhere. Schools are relatively far safer places than, say, city centres (especially at the weekend).

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