Like many people, I was both saddened and disturbed to read of the tragedy in Cults Academy, an Aberdeen secondary school, this week: a 16-year old pupil was stabbed to death by a classmate in what's been described as a "pointless fight which got out of hand". Incidents such as this are fortunately still relatively rare in UK schools, but this one appears all the more shocking in that it occurred in what is reportedly a 'good' school in a 'nice area'. In what must be every Head Teacher's worst nightmare, headmistress Anna Muirhead has paid tribute to the "gentle, caring pupil" Bailey Gwynne who lost his life, while presumably asking herself the question "How could something like this happen in my school?" One young life has been lost, another has been turned upside down, while for two sets of families nothing will ever be the same again.
Rumours have surfaced to the effect that the attacker had been being "teased" about his weight but so far it's not at all clear what form this took. Judging by the outpouring of sympathy and the tributes that have been paid, Bailey doesn't fit the typical profile of a bully and I can't detect any undercurrents of this being an issue - although there is and always has been a fine line between the supposedly harmless tradition of teasing at school (in which the victim sometimes gives back as good as he or she gets) and its more malicious and sinister form properly known as bullying.
Fights themselves at schools are of course nothing new: we had playground fights when I was a schoolboy and I well remember the chant of "Fight... fight... fight..." that would go up as we all flocked round to try and get a better view. That in turn was invariably the signal for a couple of prefects or a Master to appear out of nowhere and break it up, fortunately before any real harm had come to either of the participants. I've written about my own experience of being picked on for a fight at school: looking back on it now, although I can still clearly remember who my assailant was, I've no idea what started it nor do I attach any real significance to it other than it being part of the rough-and-tumble of school life at the time. I guess that's probably true of the ten or dozen other playground fights I witnessed during my schooldays, too. But we never had fights or violence in corridors, still less in classrooms. Nor were weapons of any sort used.
So the other dimension, I suppose here, is the use of a knife. We had metal knives rather than plastic for use in the school dining hall, albeit rather blunt ones. And in those days quite a lot of boys had penknives, especially those who were keen on scouting activities (which didn't incidentally include the stabbing of fellow scouts - at least, not deliberately!). I didn't own one as far as I recollect, nor did I have one of the other types popular at the time - a flick-knife. Illegal I believe they were at the time, but brought back in appreciable numbers from the Continent! I didn't personally know anyone who had one and I can't imagine that anyone who did would've dared bring it to school.
Back in the present, there are no easy answers to the question of why this happened in the way that it did, I daresay in the fullness of time questions will be asked, reports written and the proverbial "lessons will be learned". That's what schools are for, after all. But it will, sadly, come too late for poor Bailey.