Those who read my piece yesterday, offering condolences to those in Leeds affected by the fatal stabbing of Ann Maguire, will know that nearly 40 years ago I was lucky to survive a similar stabbing when teaching a Year 11 class. Some ten years ago, after the Philip Lawrence murder took place, I wrote in detail about my feelings and recollections of that day for a piece in the TES. I did not believe then that turning schools into fortresses was the right response, and I still don’t take that view.
In 2002, on a visit to schools in New York, I came across a high school where there had been a murder the previous day after one pupil had shot another. The school had a full suite of metal detectors, and searched every pupil’s bag on entry. The gun was passed in through a ground floor classroom window; where there is a will, there is a way.
Response must be proportional to risk. Just as the underground in London functions without searches of its millions of daily users despite the July bombings, so schools that didn’t need metal detectors yesterday, almost certainly don’t need them today. Detectors deal with the symptoms and not the causes of violence. As a civilised society we have rightly made it more difficult for young people to be sent to prison. Do we want to reverse that trend and admit defeat? Surely we have to find a way of including all our young people in society.
Although I oppose metal detectors in schools as a general rule, it doesn’t mean I oppose discipline in schools. The recent TV series on schools have shown the levels of indiscipline, and low level disruption, that can occur in schools, especially where too many inexperienced or untrained staff are employed. But, it is wrong to think back to some sort of golden age. Under the tripartite system children of many middle class parents were sheltered from the behaviour of pupils in some of the most challenging secondary modern schools. Novels, from Edward Blishen’s Roaring Boys, through Please Sir, and the US Blackboard Jungle, brought a knowledge of how tough schools could be to everyone, but non-selective secondary education really forced society to consider the issues of school life in reality, while Graham Green’s Brighton Rock and other novels showed violence in the wider society, just as TV brought the Teddy Boys and Mods and Rocker clashes to our screens during news and current affairs programmes from the 1950s onwards.
I am pleased at the proportionate response to the Leeds tragedy from many within education. No doubt we will learn far more when there is a trial at some point in the future.