Jo Laker is Head Teacher at Braithwaite CE Primary School in the Lake District. Braithwaite School has been nominated to receive a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award in recognition of its dedication to improving outcomes for bereaved pupils.

1.4n Jo Laker Braithwaite SchoolBraithwaite Primary is a small school in a village in the Lake District just outside Keswick. There are four classes of mixed age (two year groups per class), with 86 pupils on roll at the moment. We have about 12 staff including 5 teachers. The school serves a mix of families in the tourist industry, farming and trades. I’ve been Head Teacher here for nearly 8 years, having moved up from Surrey and come to the area on holiday for years before that.

Sadly we have had 4 families over the last 4-5 years who have lost one or other parent due to a range of circumstances including cancer and suicide. Out of 86 pupils, 5 have lost a parent. My former school in Surrey had a very good support network for bereaved children and a school counsellor – but there was nothing available within this area. I was looking for support and found Child Bereavement UK via Google – the charity has been a good source of advice and information. We also have a parent at the school who works for Barnardo’s who work in partnership with Child Bereavement UK in South Lakeland. That’s how we meet Tina Sudlow, Child Bereavement UK’s bereavement support worker who we talked to about arranging some training for the staff regarding supporting bereaved pupils.

We contacted Child Bereavement UK just before the summer and we have referred families for their booked telephone support. We have also adopted Child Bereavement UK’s elearning: Supporting Bereaved Pupils programme; we were very fortunate that Child Bereavement UK agreed we could be a pilot school for the programme and it has been brilliant. We may also bring in Child Bereavement UK to do some face-to-face INSET training for us at a later date.

The elearning has been a really good way to enhance the skills of the staff. It has provided us with advice and support without the need to bring an expert in. Cost, time and distance are barriers for a small school like ours – even just getting the staff together for training can be hard. The good thing about the elearning is that everybody receives a consistent message and can do it in their own time and at home. It suited some of the staff well to do the training in privacy – if some of them found parts of it provoked an emotional response, it was much easier at home than in a room full of people.

Teachers can find it difficult dealing with a bereaved child. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, upset the pupil or cause psychological damage. This way, they know what to say and do, they have guidance and access to best practice. Teachers want to help their pupils, but they’re not bereavement professionals and have no counselling training. What’s been really helpful from the elearning has been that we have since faced other bereavements, but we now know what the expectations are and how we will treat the child and manage the situation. Having had the training takes the pressure off having to decide then and there how to handle it.

We have learned to acknowledge the death, talk about it, and let the child tell us if they want to talk further. It’s useful for many situations, including the loss of a pet or a grandparent. I have a new member of staff whose close friend has recently died, leaving children. I’m going to add her to the elearning training so she can help her friend’s children too.

For schools who don’t have any bereavement policy or training, I would say it’s a really good idea to formulate a ‘whole school approach’ and have plans in place, discussing who should be responsible for what. It’s much easier then if it happens and everybody knows what their part is in supporting the child and the family. Parents have found it really useful as well. One of the mums came in and talked to us a lot in the early days after her child’s dad’s sudden death. She wanted to know what she should say and not say and how she could help her child. The school had of course been shocked by the death but we were able to deal with it. Another mum, who has since died, came to see us. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and knew we’d had bereavement training. She told us ‘I’m so glad my daughter is at this school.’ She knew we would look after her.

I think young children are very matter of fact and accepting about death, but they don’t always understand the implications of permanency and can feel bewildered. Children are resilient – it’s often the adults who find it more of a struggle. Parents can be visibly upset in the playground – it’s often when the children have to deal with adults’ emotions that they find it hard. It’s difficult when a child is trying to be brave for a surviving parent. Children need space to feel sad – they shouldn’t have to put on a brave face.

We try to be aware of bereaved children’s anniversaries and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We talk to the family about how the events are marked in school, and how we will handle them so that a child isn’t faced unexpectedly with something that could be difficult to deal with. We ask them what they’d like to do for a card – whether they want to make one for an Aunt or Grandma or to take a card for Mum’s grave. It’s important that the child has a choice and doesn’t have to make a decision on the spot.

In terms of changes I’d like to see in schools, I’d love bereavement counselling to be available as a service to schools, and I’d love there to be support groups available – we just don’t have that sort of thing around here. We’d love to host something.

Support makes such a difference for a child. Death is such a taboo area for adults and children and it can make a real difference if staff feel comfortable. It can help the child feel supported and loved at a very difficult time. That’s crucial.

At Braithwaite School we are very touched to receive a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award. It’s also bittersweet; as a school, bereavement is a situation we’re proud that we’re good at, but it’s not something anyone wants to have to be good at. Every school should know how to deal with bereavement. My staff are brilliant and this award is a recognition of the care they have towards our children.