The killing of Ann Maguire, a 61-year-old Spanish teacher, in her Leeds school classroom on Monday counts among the most dreadful of crimes. Mrs Maguire appears to have embodied something of the inspirational quality that pupils remember long after they leave school. That she was stabbed to death allegedly by a pupil, in the middle of a lesson, shocks and appals in equal measure. For those who knew her, all today’s discussion of school safety and violence among the young is very much by the by. Outside of Mrs Maguire’s school and its environs, however, these questions mingle with pained reflection on the terrible end to a life lived in service of the public.
They begin with how to place such a singular crime in context. As might be expected, this country has witnessed far less blood on school grounds than America, where 83 fatal incidents have occurred since the time of Britain’s last, the horrific 1996 Dunblane massacre. Much as the suspect in this case – a 15-year-old boy – must be treated as unique, part of no statistical pattern, it is imperative for any response to assess the scale of violence within UK schools. In the past three years the number of weapons found on pupils totals around 1,000, according to police figures. Among an 8.2 million-strong cohort, the chance of a child being caught carrying a weapon into school is therefore around 0.01 per cent. More will go undetected, however. And Department for Education figures record a steady rate of 17,000 suspensions for assaulting an adult each year. Clearly, the physical threat to teachers is real and troubling. But it is no epidemic, and, even in the wake of the horror in Leeds, does not necessitate sweeping reform.
The subject of knife-detectors should be approached with this in mind. Since 2008, a number of British schools with a history of violence have employed airport-style scanners, checking pupils as they arrive at school in the morning. Making such security mandatory across secondary schools – as some have suggested – would be costly, and, without a number of complementary measures, may not stop a child determined to cause serious harm.
In 2010, headteachers were handed new powers to search pupils for drugs and weapons. Targeting those most likely to carry these items is preferable to treating all pupils with suspicion. That Corpus Christi Catholic College employed a “safer schools” officer – who was not on the grounds at the time of the attack – sadly underlines the fact that total school security is a logistical non-starter.
Teachers’ unions and politicians have commendably avoided any rush to change. Legislation produced in a rush after traumatic events, many will be aware, can cause as many problems as it solves. The Labour MP for Leeds spoke of profound sadness at the news, while adding that “we don’t want to lock pupils and staff behind high fences”. How to make students and staff feel safer until the bell rings should be left to headteachers, who will know the ground better, and the characters who cause trouble. Again, pastoral human intervention may do more to prevent violence – particularly incidents that occur outside the school gates – than inanimate metal-detectors.
Mrs Maguire’s legacy within school – as attested to by scores of former pupils, young and old – was one of dedication, care, and good cheer over a career that stretched 40 years. She was described as “the mother of the school”. To head too far in the direction of bolstering security would seem an inappropriate tribute. Far better for Britain’s politicians and teachers to learn from the life of this much-loved woman than her tragic and untimely death.