Almost four years after her death at the hands of a pupil, the family of murdered Leeds teacher Ann Maguire are still struggling to come to terms with her loss. Aasma Day reports.
“If you spent just a few minutes in Ann’s company, you would feel like you were the most special person in the world. Ann was born to be a teacher and transformed so many children’s lives for the better.”
Shaking her head helplessly, Ann Maguire’s sister Denise Courtney reveals how it is still difficult for the family to believe how she was taken from them. In April 2014, the 61-year-old Spanish teacher was stabbed to death by her 15-year-old pupil Will Cornick in front of horrified classmates at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds where she had taught for 41 years.
Denise, aged 52, says there are times when it still feels like a horrific nightmare. “It is surreal. There are times when we look back and think: ‘Has this really happened to us?’ And then the reality hits us that it has.
“For something so horrific to have happened to your family and your sister is difficult to deal with. It was all just so senseless and needless and it is something you never recover from.
“It is beyond comprehension that something like this could happen.”
The shocking and unprecedented killing shocked the nation and is the only case in which a teacher has been killed by a pupil in a British classroom. The culprit Will Cornick was sentenced to life by a judge who ordered he must serve at least 20 years and warned he may never be released.
Cornick showed a complete lack of remorse for the crime and his motive was an “inexplicable and irrational hatred” of Ann who was simply carrying out her duty as a teacher. The court case heard how Cornick had made it clear he “hated” Ann after she banned him from a school trip for failing to do his homework.
He exchanged messages on Facebook sharing his hatred of Ann Maguire and his desire to kill her and on the morning of the murder, he showed other pupils the knife and boasted of the planned attack but they did not take his threats seriously.
Denise says: “It just happened to be a knife that he used to kill her. But it could just as easily have been another weapon. In this instance, it was the most accessible thing for him. Ann’s death resulted from hatred of that individual towards my sister.”
Maguire, who was born and raised in Lancashire, had always wanted to be a teacher and after going to Leeds Trinity University, she settled down in the city and got a job at Corpus Christi Catholic College where she spent her teaching career. Denise says: “Ann loved being a teacher and was born to be one. It was a vocation for her not a job. She absolutely loved that school and never considered moving. This makes what happened even more tragic, senseless and incredibly sad.”
An investigation by The Yorkshire Post and its sister titles has found that more than 2,400 children have been caught in school with a knife, blade or other weapon since 2012, with a 42 per cent rise in cases in the last two academic years.
Denise says while it is frightening to hear how many children are being found in possession of weapons in school, she is firmly against the idea of body scanners in schools - and is adamant Ann wouldn’t have wanted that either.
“I know my sister Ann would not have wanted things like metal detectors or body scanners in schools. Education and teaching people was everything to Ann and I know she would think in essence it is about teaching young people what is right and what is wrong. In her eyes, the best way of dealing with the issue of knife crime would be talking about it and raising awareness through education - not technology such as scanners.
“I feel metal detectors and body scanners give out the wrong message. It would invoke fears in a good school. And metal detectors would only pick up things with metal.
“But there are plenty of other weapons without metal. How would you pick up something like a baseball bat for instance? Or things like acid? How would schools police that? There is not a blanket solution to these problems. There is good and bad everywhere and there is not one solution that fixes all. But it has to be more about discussions, dialogue and education. Talk about these issues in assemblies.”
Denise says there should be some way in which children can anonymously report concerns about other pupils to help prevent other attacks in future.
“In Ann’s situation, the culprit talked about what he was going to do that morning but the other children clearly did not believe him and thought it was just bravado. People need to talk about any issues in schools such as seeing another pupil with a knife or weapon or any threat.
“There should be a forum where children can go and report these things without fear of repercussion. There should be safe places for children to go if they feel there is a threat. It is about educating and encouraging children to come forward with any of their concerns and raising them with an adult and not being fearful. Not just to do with knives but bullying, threats, anything.
“If someone sees or hears something and nothing is done, the repercussions could be more damaging. Schools should also engage with children and explore the reasons why some young people carry a knife. Why do they feel the need to arm themselves? Is it for protection, out of fear or for bravado?”
Denise, whose three older sisters were teachers and who works in education herself, also believes it is not just down to the schools and that parents and society as a whole need to play a part in increasing awareness about knife crime and other issues.
When Ann and Denise’s their other sister Eileen, a primary school teacher, died of cancer at the age of 35, Ann took in and brought up her two nephews. Denise says there is not a day that the family don’t think about what happened and she and her older sister Shelagh talk about Ann every day.
“Ann was my best friend, my soulmate and my big sister. I shared everything with Ann and we talked all the time. I can’t believe she has gone and it was all so senseless and needless.”
Denise she is sharing her views on tackling knife crime as she believes society needs to unite to tackle such issues and prevent a tragedy like this happening to any other family.
“Everybody needs to be more aware of knife crime and it is up to everybody in society to tackle it and speak up if they suspect something or know someone is carrying a knife. There is no simple solution and it is not going to happen overnight. Ann was killed for no reason apart from a sense of hatred from one person and she paid the price for that hatred with her life. That senseless action means she is not here.
“I wish we could turn the clock back and that Ann was still here with us but we can’t. However, if by raising awareness, we can stop just one person or one family from suffering this kind of loss, it will be worth it.”
Inspiration who made lives better
Ann Maguire transformed the lives of countless students, says her sister.
“Ann was so caring and kind. She ran a school choir and so many people have told us they fulfilled their ambitions and dreams because of Ann particularly in the field of music.
“Ann made them realise their worth and their potential. Ann would recruit children to the choir by saying: ‘You can have a detention or you can join the choir’. Many of them joined and found they had a voice.
“Some of the pupils went on have a career in music or joined a band all because of Ann.”
Denise says Ann had taught the parents and grandparents of some of her pupils. “The children loved her. She was more than a teacher. She was their friend and confidante. She was always there for them.”