IT STARTED as an ordinary day, but Tuesday 11 January 1977 has
remained etched in my memory. That afternoon, while teaching a
group of fifth-year pupils in a comprehensive school in Tottenham,
I was attacked by an intruder, and was stabbed in front of the
My heart goes out to the family of the teacher Ann Maguire, the
staff and pupils at her school, and the wider community caught up
in the recent tragic events in Leeds (News,
2 May). My experience has remained with me for ever, as it will
have for the others who witnessed it. I could not watch plays such
as Macbeth, or any violence involving knives, for many
In the 1970s, there was no counselling available either for the
pupils who saw the stabbing or for the wider school community. We
have moved on in this respect for what still remain rare events in
schools. There have been about nine million teacher-years spent in
classrooms since the head teacher Philip Lawrence was killed
outside his London school (like the school in Leeds, a Roman
Catholic secondary) in 1995, and the shooting in Dunblane a few
months later in March 1996, where a teacher and 16 pupils lost
It is important to recognise that violence still exists in many
secondary schools, but, despite some comments, not at the level
witnessed in the past; and corporal punishment is happily nothing
but a distant memory. Nevertheless, the worrying spate of different
types of attacks on teachers since the Leeds event once again
raises disturbing questions.
Nearly 40 years ago, my attacker spent a short period in custody
as a juvenile - less than would be the case now, after the concerns
over knife crime during the past decade. Both the Court of Appeal,
in recently backing deterrent sentences for knife crime, and
ministers' proposing mandatory sentences, that leave courts no
discretion are trying to use punitive means to eradicate such
After serving for more than 20 years as a magistrate, I have no
faith in mandatory sentences decided by Parliament. Westminster
should decide the maximum sentence an offence deserves, and then
leave the sentencing to the judiciary, assisted by their
Similarly, although any fatality must cause organisations to
review their policies on preventing intruders' gaining access to
schools, and other measures for the protection of staff, I do not
believe that every school should rush to introduce metal detectors.
They can cause a false sense of security.
I once visited a school in the United States which had full
airport-system protection, with metal detectors and bag searches.
Sadly, the day before my visit, there had been a shooting: a gun
had been handed in through a ground-floor window. Better to create
a situation in schools where bullying and fear are dispelled and
pupils see no reason to bring weapons on to the site.
Learning is all about building trust, and sometimes taking risks
based on that trust. As I look back on my career in education since
that day in 1977, I reflect how lucky I was, and give thanks for
the support of my family and friends, and those who helped me when
I returned to my classroom six weeks afterwards.
I still believe that education has a duty to reach out to all
and seek to improve lives, not merely to contain young people.
Schools are much better at this than when I was stabbed, and I
firmly believe that we must see the recent tragedy in Leeds as a
time to reaffirm our commitment, and not to pull up the drawbridge
and retreat into a fortress mentality.
Professor John Howson JP is a Liberal Democrat county
councillor in Oxfordshire, and a visiting professor at Oxford
Brookes University. He taught in Tottenham for nine years, and has
since worked in teacher education, and owned an