A legacy for Ann McGuire would be better mental health services for teenagers

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May 16, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

The funeral for Ann McGuire, the school teacher who was fatally stabbed last month, takes place today in Leeds. She had taught for forty years at the same school, contributing hugely to the education of thousands of young people in and out of the classroom. From what I have read about her she was everything that teachers should aspire to be and I hope that after her funeral as she rests in peace her family will start on their journey to finding the same peace.

Sadly though, the fall out from what happened that fateful day will run for a while. At some point the fifteen year-old boy who allegedly stabbed Mrs McGuire in the neck will go on trial for her murder. That trial will be very public, and if found guilty, his name will forever be associated with hers – just as Learco Chindamo’s is with Philip Lawrence, the Headteacher he stabbed in 1995 when Lawrence tried to break up a fight he was in.

Furthermore, there has been a lot of talk around policies to try and stop things like this happening again. Much of the focus has been on knife-policy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if last week’s issue that arose over Chris Grayling’s announcement that the government were considering automatic prison sentences for those found carrying a knife twice is related in some way to this incident.  Quick, panicked policy-making after a tragic event like this is often very bad policy-making, and thankfully calmer minds have prevailed as it has become clearer that the incident in which Mrs McGuire died was more about the mental health of the assailant than the weapon that he happened to choose.

Good teachers push. They push pupils to make the most of themselves. Good teachers put the achievement of their pupils’ aspirations ahead of their popularity, and ahead of their life balance (because pushing pupils can mean giving up time to support them). In the long run, pupils don’t thank teachers for being their friend, they will however thank teachers for pushing and helping them make the most of themselves. The messages left for Ann McGuire suggested that she was one of those teachers who would give up her time and put her soul into helping her pupils achieve.

Sometimes, those attempts to push can result in some difficult short-term issues. I am lucky enough to teach in a school now where the vast majority of the pupils have an amazing amount of self-motivation. But I have taught in a school where the role of a teacher is exceptionally important, as many of the pupils come from chaotic home-lives without boundaries and anyone at home interested in their education and find it difficult when faced with an educator who won’t let them not get the grade they are capable of. I personally have never been physically attacked in a school, but I’ve seen pupils struggle to deal with being challenged, and I have sometimes seen in their eyes, and heard from their words and seen from their body language that they are struggling to do this.

The boy who stabbed Ann McGuire was apparently an ‘A’-grade student about to take his GCSEs – the circumstances surrounding his decision to walk up behind her and kill her will become clear, but stories that have emerged have suggested that she had been doing exactly what teachers should do before public exams, and giving her pupils a last push over that line, and he for some reason, couldn’t handle it.

The policy area that is most important, for me, in order to help ensure what happened to Mrs McGuire doesn’t happen again (it’s important to note it was the first time a teacher has been killed inside a school like this in living memory), is mental health. The few things that we know about the boy involved is that he had very few, if any friends, his facebook page had a picture of the Grim Reaper on it and many of the other pupils at his school talked of him being a ‘loner’ and ‘wierd’. He sounds like someone who needed some sort of mental health intervention. We don’t know, although we will find out, whether his school had been able to do that.

There have been cuts to teenage mental health services. That is a fact. Schools that cannot afford to have their own counsellors on site rely on the child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs). These are funded by and provided by the local authorities. Two thirds of local authorities have cut their Camhs budget since 2010 and over half of NHS trusts have reduced their teenage mental health services too. We need to help our young people build up the resilience to deal with setbacks in their life, the little failures that every child may encounter, and many other problems. This requires a proper investment, which will pay itself back many times over in the future. 

In Ann McGuire’s memory, it would be best if more teachers were like her. But it would also be best if we help those that she dedicated her life to helping. If that is one of her legacies, I imagine she would be proud.

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