With the start of the new academic year, the lingering effect of the pandemic is still one of the biggest issues for schools.
According to a survey by Child Bereavement UK in 2018, only 10% of teachers had received any bereavement training during Initial Teacher Training or subsequent professional development.
This is despite 86% of teachers saying they have experienced a death in the school community, and nearly three quarters reporting teaching pupils affected by the death of someone significant. This lack of training has laid bare the trauma of bereavement during the pandemic, affecting not only teachers and pupils, but the whole community surrounding the school.
One school badly hit by the pandemic was St Claudine’s Catholic School for Girls (formerly the Convent of Jesus and Mary Language College) in north-west London. Head Teacher Dr Louise McGowan commented:
“The death toll of parents and carers amongst our community went up and up. By July 2020 eighteen of our children had been bereaved, an astonishing number. All schools will experience loss during a school year. Sadly it is part of our work, but to have such a volume, it was so shocking, particularly when there were also children that were orphaned. So our work was suddenly altered. Our keeping-in-touch communications became more like a lifeline for those families that had been bereaved.
“I was very struck by a statistic from one of the research reports from Child Bereavement UK, where they talk about 1 in 29 children aged 5 to 16 will be bereaved of a parent or sibling. That's one child in every class.”
“So I think having some training in bereavement care for all frontline staff who work with children is absolutely essential. I've never had any training in how to manage a school in a pandemic, but I think I could write a manual on that now. I would advocate training, it should be compulsory, it should be part of teacher training, teacher induction as well. Not only teachers - we have a whole army of wonderful support staff - so for any education professional to have some grounding in how to deal with bereavement and to be that person that journeys with a child along that difficult path, that's essential.”
This lack of training is set to change thanks to a new partnership between Child Bereavement UK and St Mary’s University. The university, which trains over a thousand new teachers each year, primary and secondary, has already begun an online pilot with Child Bereavement UK.
Professor Anna Lise Gordon, Director of the Institute of Education at St. Mary's University said, “There's something around bereavement that is particularly difficult for a teacher, however experienced. Our own trainee teachers say that they're so nervous of saying the wrong thing. So our ability as an Initial Teacher Education Provider working in partnership with Child Bereavement UK, is to essentially normalise conversations around death and dying; to have honest conversations with children about feelings, emotions, the impact it might be having on behaviour, and on their progress in study.
“We've done a pilot this year, all of our trainee teachers were offered bereavement awareness training online. I was very struck by one response in the evaluation: 99.6% said that the training had increased their confidence to deal with bereavement issues. It means we've got to do more of it, so next academic year we're going to offer the same to all of our trainee teachers, and in discussion with Child Bereavement UK, we'll also be exploring ways of extending it.
“We work with over 650 partnership schools. So we can involve them in some of this training as well, in terms of policy and having the right procedures in place in advance of them being needed, rather than as a reactive response to an unfortunate death. At St Mary's we're very keen to make sure those things are front and centre of the work we do with our trainee teachers, so they're equipped and ready to embrace all the challenges of the classroom, including a grieving child.”
Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals both when a child dies or is dying, and when a child is facing bereavement. The charity trained over 16,000 education professionals during the pandemic last year and 1 in 6 calls to its helpline are from teachers seeking guidance around bereavement.
The Centre for the Art of Dying Well, based at St Mary’s University, has been key in the development of the partnership and pilot program. The subject of bereavement is a key strand of the work of the Centre. Speaking on the latest Art of Dying Well podcast https://www.buzzsprout.com/1831822/9130343, Tracey Boseley, National Development Lead for the Education Sector at Child Bereavement UK said:
“We know that many young people have been affected by deaths during the pandemic, even though they may not have known the person very well; sometimes just hearing stories of other people who have died can have an impact. Or it could be someone in their own family: a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, or a parent; or someone from their friendship group. There's no way of knowing which particular death is going to affect them and there's no hierarchy in the grief that they feel, so it's about ensuring that support is available and being there for them.
“A lot of bereaved young people tell us they crave normality. And that's what school can provide: stability and normality; structure and routine; because at home it might be quite chaotic. And often when there's been a bereavement, things will never will be as they were, whereas school can be their guiding force and stability. That's why many bereaved young people found it so difficult when they weren't able to attend school regularly throughout the lockdowns. Providing a sense of normality, with flexibility and understanding from trusted and familiar adults within school, can make a real difference to bereaved young people.”