Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Lines of support

Train derailment

Member Daphne West was lucky to survive the Reading train crash last November - but one of her students did not. Four months on, she reflects on what she and her colleagues at Maynard School have learned about dealing with such a tragedy.

On Saturday 6 November, I rang my husband from Paddington to say that I was just about to catch the 17.35 to Exeter. I took advantage of the weekend upgrade to first class: I had a lot of work to do on my annual prize giving speech and wanted peace and quiet.

I was totally engrossed in my work, when, suddenly, violent noise and movement signalled the start of the derailment. I was thrown to the floor and, for what seemed like an age, hurled up and down. Eventually it ceased.

In the darkness, with the smell of diesel fuel everywhere, I was not immediately aware of my injuries but I remember my feet were sticking out of the broken window and I could feel the rails.

Another passenger, a young American man, rigged up a makeshift seat for me and kept me talking until the emergency services came.

After a short spell in A&E, I was discharged in the early hours with injuries to my left hip and elbow and six stitches in my head. I had been fantastically lucky. The real shock and extent of my injuries would not become apparent for several days.

On Sunday evening, the deputy head, Ann Boyce, came to my home, by which time I had managed to draw up a list of tasks for the next couple of days. In 26 years of teaching, I have only been ill for a handful of days and it did not occur to me that I would be away for long.

Breaking the news

Little did I realise what Ann would face on Monday, when a great many things happened in a short space of time.

She rang not long after the start of school, to say that three pupils had been on the train. One was injured but appeared sufficiently well to be back in school.

Of the other two, who had been shopping together in London, one was in a serious condition in hospital but the third, Emily, had died at the scene.

Suddenly, in my absence, Ann was left to deal with a tragedy. I asked her to ensure that our critical incident plan was followed and a critical incident management team set up.

To her immense credit, the chair of governors immediately arranged to take time off from her own job in order to help.

We agreed that first Ann should ring the parents of Emily's closest friends and ask them to come into school, ready to take their daughters home after the distressing news.

Emily's head of year and tutor team gathered her tutor group in the dining centre, while other staff broke the news, as gently as they could, to the junior and senior sections.

My home telephone, fax machine and email buzzed all morning - it was important that a letter be drafted to go out to all parents and a press release agreed. Ann was nominated as the single spokesperson to the media.

By early afternoon, I had seen my GP who advised me that I would very probably be out for at least two weeks.

My own physical condition was worsening and I was feeling isolated - wanting to help my colleagues but not wanting to get in the way.

That evening, my nearest neighbour, also a parent, called to say that in spite of the very clear letter that had been sent home, a rumour was going around that I had 'lost my speech'. (Well, I had - my laptop with my prize giving speech was somewhere in the train wreckage.)

Key moments

There were key decisions and moments in the weeks that followed. I wanted to involve the pupils - especially those who were close to Emily - in suggestions and decisions about how to celebrate her memory.

We also made sure there were many opportunities for people to talk about their feelings. We learned quickly that moods change. Just because someone said on day three they didn't want to talk about it, didn't mean that was still the case on day 13.

Emily's funeral took place ten days after the crash. Her school friends and staff (including me, in a wheelchair) attended.

On that same day, Ann led an assembly at school in Emily's memory: it was important that the whole senior section felt part of the day, though not all could attend the tiny village church.

In the last week of term, Emily's father asked if he could take part in an assembly to say thank you. We followed this with a bulb planting ceremony under 'Emily's tree'.

A permanent memorial to Emily, a garden of reflection which we are now planning, will hopefully help us move forward.

At the end of term, we planned a 'thank you' event for the teaching and non-teaching staff - a few drinks with some nice canapés at a local wine bar. Everyone was physically tired and emotionally drained and the event did seem to boost morale.

Underlying injuries

I was able to return part-time to school only during week four after the accident. Thanks to my very supportive SMT and governors, I managed to participate in some key events before the end of term, by which time I had graduated to a walking stick.

I have started 2005 full-time but am trying to be sensible and pace myself. Apparently it's quite normal in accidents of this kind for 'underlying injuries' to reveal themselves only after several weeks.

I started with bruising and stitches, but since then have had infections, difficulty in walking, headaches, problems with my jaw, cheekbone and sinus.

I have tried to cope with each stage as it has arisen and to keep my eye on the bottom line: I survived.

I have got fed up with pain, with the inability to move at anything like normal speed, unaccountable fatigue and a feeling that people are bored and expect me to be better.

Two of my ways of coping have been to remember 'that was then, this is now' and most of all to have very specific targets to meet.

I do teach and I conduct the middle school choir; I wanted to get back to these activities. I did, and led the choir in the Cathedral on 6 December. A week later I gave my annual address at prize giving in the Great Hall of the university.

Was I well enough? No. Did it do me good? Yes - the pupils were rooting for me all the way. It also was good for pupils, parents and colleagues to see that we were getting back to something like normality.

Survivor guilt

The two injured girls and I share many of the same feelings: 'survivor guilt', surprise that the effects of our injuries are still on-going, lack of sleep through pain and difficult dreams.

I encourage them to come and talk to me about it, for it is difficult for those not directly involved to understand that these things do not go away.

The hardest emotions are those that creep up on you when you're least expecting it. It's hard to be a head when you're close to tears because something suddenly makes you think of being in the train.

On 8 December came, possibly, the most difficult occasion of all: the memorial service in Reading. The congregation was made up of the bereaved families, surviving passengers and their families and the emergency services.

The Bishop of Reading in his address got it absolutely right: for those of us caught up in the tragedy, life will never be the same again.

Daphne West is head of Maynard School in Exeter, an independent selective day school for over 480 girls aged 7-18.

Headship and senior management are often about balancing acts. This is especially true in aftermath of tragedy.

Sensitive antennae are needed in the preparation of every 'first' event and document after the incident: the end-of-term letter, the newsletter, the previously planned event (e.g. a school play). What might upset those directly involved in the incident? Might others feel left out, that too much attention is focused on those involved?

My colleagues and I have learned so many lessons. Here are the chief ones:

  • Have a critical incident plan and update it every year

  • During a critical incident, make sure the team meets every day and sets the time of its next meeting

  • Use email to contact one another

  • Consider how to lighten loads at an early stage (the deputy initially carried on doing too much teaching)

  • Stick to your script with the media; nominate one spokesperson; think about how best to protect your pupils from media intrusion

  • Liaise as much as you can with families of the casualties; protect their privacy and ascertain their wishes

  • Remember that while your critical incident team knows what is happening, the rest of the staff may not. Involve staff and pupils who want to help

  • Remember your non-teaching staff; my PA was very much in the front line

  • Remember the pressures on staff who have children in the school who are friends of the injured/deceased

  • Set things in place so that people can move on but don't be too anxious to make this happen; for some directly involved, the true impact won't hit until they have dealt with their physical injuries

  • Keep contact with the bereaved family (Emily's father now helps with our outdoor pursuits training)

  • Remember that when the critical incident is over, the old routine problems will re-surface...

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