Five years ago, a terrorist incident tested the strength of one primary school’s diverse community. Dr David Dixon discusses how his school’s focus on cohesion helped them to withstand the events of 2013 and remain united...

It seems incredible, that May 22 saw the fifth anniversary of the horrific terrorist murder of Gunner Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. I was the headteacher of the primary school that was literally on top of the incident. Although I didn’t share my thoughts on the effects of the incident and its aftermath on the school and surrounding community at the time, I feel it pertinent to do so now.

This is partly because the incident is still a live issue in the locality, but mainly because there is a very positive story to tell about community cohesion and resilience.

Within this I wish to highlight the fantastic work done by schools, often in very challenging circumstances to nurture their children and families in many ways. These include providing a broad and balanced curriculum, having sufficient knowledge and understanding of local cultures and, most important of all, having empathy with individuals and groups.

All this is a tall order in the best of circumstances and schools fortunate enough to be in socio-economic prosperous and safe areas don’t have to put so much resource into addressing wider issues of community cohesion, or having to support a majority of children with English as a second language and/or significant SEND. This has become an even bigger challenge since 2013 as the government continues to squeeze school budgets and give ever more credence to narrow academic measures in their league tables.

Creating cohesion

Well before 2013, my school had a long tradition of celebrating the diversity of its catchment area. More than 50 languages and countries were present and this was seen as an asset rather than a problem. When I came to the school in 2011, I sought to build upon this through the adoption of a sustainability ethos. Usually this is associated with environmentalism, but it also incorporates social and economic aspects of life which relate to how human beings interact with each other and the physical world. Community cohesion is another way of describing social sustainability and I tapped into many sources and experiences to help strengthen this.

This approach reaped dividends in terms of having a positive influence on all areas of school improvement. It enabled us to have an experiential curriculum and tapped into the local cultural diversity. This was motivational for teachers and learners. Just as importantly, it attended to the development of strong relationships between all internal and external stakeholders. To support this, I utilised aspects of the following national initiatives:

  • Social, Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) – rolled out across the UK in 2005 with the aim of developing pupils’ personal and social skills, such as self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills. These inter and intra-personal skills have been shown to improve learning and promote emotional health and wellbeing.
  • National Healthy Schools Programme – a government project intended to improve health, raise achievement, improve social inclusion and encourage closer working between health and education providers.
  • Every Child Matters – aimed for every child, whatever their background or circumstances, to have the support they need to: Stay Safe, Be Healthy, Enjoy and Achieve, Make a Positive Contribution, and Achieve Economic Wellbeing. Each of these themes had a detailed framework attached which required multi-agency partnerships.
  • Extended Schools – from 2010, schools were expected to provide a varied menu of extra-curricular activities including study support, childcare, parenting support including family learning, and access to targeted and specialist support services, and community access to school facilities. I used Pupil Premium money to continue these services.
  • Eco-schools – formerly a government project, latterly run by an NGO and providing an accredited framework linked to the curriculum, campus and community.

These initiatives were predicated on “soft outcomes” and joined up approaches under-pinning child and community welfare. When all these national initiatives were fully up and running up to about 2012, there was a synergy between national cultural development imperatives and those we wished to implement at local level.

Unfortunately, many non-statutory aspects of these initiatives were either abandoned or watered down due to changing government priorities, but this is another story. Suffice to say that their decline can be traced as far back as 2008 when the schools minister announced that PSHE was to become a statutory part of the national curriculum. This never happened. A short time later there was a general election and funding for Healthy Schools and PSHE CPD was cut and, as Reece (2017) said: “Every Child Matters was dropped from the lexicon of the Department for Education (DfE).” Eco-schools went into decline after much of their government funding diminished post-2010.

Fundamental British Values (FBV)

Latterly, the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) agenda has been supplemented with the expectation that all state schools should promote Fundamental British Values (FBV), defined as the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This top-down national initiative had its foundations in the Home Office’s Prevent Strategy (2011), which aimed to deradicalise those deemed to hold extreme ideologies or to protect people in the first place.

The DfE made it mandatory for schools to promote these values and enforced this via Ofsted. It can be seen as a reductionist silver bullet, rather than the previous more holistic government initiatives described above. Some schools adopted these values in a very simplistic way and thought that displaying pictures of London buses, red phone boxes and holding tea and cake parties with Union Flag bunting was sufficient.

Many in the profession thought that the imposition of such values implied that the government didn’t think that schools were doing enough in this area (which it didn’t) and that indeed some schools were a hot-bed of anti-establishment or even terrorist sentiment (which they weren’t).

Beyond tolerance

Despite FBV, schools in England do many things to create the conditions whereby children acquire SMSC values without the need for heavy-handed imposition. Schools are often a bulwark against bullying, racism and prejudice. I have reservations about the promotion of “tolerance”, which can be quite a cold term: “Willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.”

I would argue that the best schools promote not just tolerance, but love – love of fellow human beings through unconditional regard, love of aesthetics and love of the natural world, all integral elements of sustainability. This in itself provides a deep spiritual dimension to life above and beyond the needs of physical daily existence. Sir Ken Robinson, in his video entitled “Changing Education Paradigms”, talks about how schools can undermine this aesthetic appreciation of life by literally anesthetising children in the same way a prescribed drug for ADHD might. Tolerance can also be viewed as a mechanism for “immunising” our dominant liberal culture from “the other”, i.e. only including those who are willing to be “liberalised” in order to reaffirm the dominant culture – in our case this might be construed as consumer-capitalism. The immunising theory propounded by Ulbricht (2015) and others forms an alternative perspective on ideas of multi-culturalism and has influenced the way I have described my experiences.

Creative cohesion

Like many schools in our situation, we put a lot of effort into celebrating the main religious festivals and held special events where people brought in national dishes. We also had things like the Great British Tea party with bunting! Everyone celebrated Christmas without people turning a hair because it was seen as “just another” important festival where everyone could join in. We allowed girls to wear hijabs in line with the colours of the school uniform. Nobody withdrew their children from religious education lessons. We had a multi-cultural staff which also helped to promote a message of “being in it together”.

Cohesion tested

The terrorist attack occurred right outside the school. We had to go into lockdown and pandemonium reigned outside as armed police were mobilised. We had to inform parents by text that their children were safe and that they should come for them at the usual time, but from a different exit.

I received my first direct experience of 24-hour news media and was deluged with requests to be interviewed. This was very disconcerting and following advice from the local authority press office, I confined my time to one interview on BBC radio. A news helicopter constantly hovered over the school and the drone of this over the next couple of days fuelled the sense of unease everyone felt.

One angle they were interested in was that we had quite a few children from army families as well as lots of Muslim children. There were false reports of panic within the school, when in fact everything stayed calm and the staff did sterling work to make sure the children were as unaffected as possible. We also had great support from the local authority at the time and later when some staff and children needed counselling services.

The whole area was sealed off for a few days while forensic evidence was gathered, but I decided to open the school again the next day because I wanted to send a “business as usual” message to the community, which I hoped would calm things rather than prolong anxieties. I’m pleased to say we had very little extra absence the next day. I also stuck to my resolve of giving no more interviews. It seemed to me that these were part of the media feeding frenzy and I wanted no part in this.

I was gratified that parents from many different groups, including army families and Muslim families, came up to thank us on how well the school had coped. Although there were periodic protests from right-wing groups against Islam and continued media intrusion over the following days and months, thanks to the parents and staff, the school remained a bastion of calm and togetherness. People had recognised the common good and retained their respect for each other even though others tried to use the incident to foster divisiveness. Thinking back, it was amazing that so many parents sent their children to school the next day. It speaks volumes about the resilience of the parent body, some of whom had fled war zones.

Diversity combatting adversity

I feel that we had got the school culture to the point where it was resilient enough to come through and it is this type of resilience which is a vital aspect of social sustainability. The prevailing culture of the school went beyond mere “tolerance” of others. It actively sought to demonstrate in a drip-feed way, as well as through high-profile events, that the concept of “we” literally included everyone and there was no room for “them”.

Whenever conflict arose, be it through acts of intentional or unintentional racism or bullying, or any other acts which implied other people were less human than “me”, these were challenged. Sometimes this meant making a big fuss with individuals or groups, but much more often it was a case of having a “quiet word” or bringing up an issue for discussion in lessons or through the School Council. We also accentuated inclusive behaviour. A good example of this was adopting the “Random Act of Kindness” philosophy (RAK, 2018).

All this served to show that if you get people from diverse backgrounds together on a regular basis and you are seen as an “honest broker”, you tend to get better mutual understanding, leaving less room for prejudice (as we know, children are born without prejudice and have to learn it). It was also important for school staff to show unconditional regard for children and parents regardless of their circumstances.

This was particularly challenging for support staff who lived locally and who could bring in pre-conceived ideas about certain families or groups. However, it was also challenging for everyone else and we tried to embed as much impartiality as possible within our CPD.

I feel that a sustainability perspective helps to untangle issues of culture and race and can tap into wider discussions of what the aims of our education service should be. If, as is likely, we start to have more environmental problems leading to shortages, economic disruption and immigration/migration, it will be important for social cohesion to continue so that our society can pull through. Without the appropriate strategies, frameworks and knowledge in place, I believe we will be less fitted for coping with future challenges and for creating a more equitable and happy society.

Overall, I think that the more knowledge a leader can have of the cultures within their school, the better placed he or she is to provide the conditions for cohesion and happiness and wellbeing of all. This should underpin a shared culture created by school leaders which everyone can sign up to, but which also deals with the external demands of easily measurable outcomes. However, this shouldn’t have to mean imposing a policy of uniform tolerance or any other liberal values which subjugate or immunise, rather than nurture.

Joined up approaches in jeopardy

I have highlighted the challenges concerning the implementation of national social policy through the school system, where problems can arise due to tightly proscribed initiatives such as FBV, or where more general initiatives are eroded or withdrawn due to the changing political climate. Whatever the external conditions and accountabilities, I have always tried to adapt them in the light of my local imperatives. This balancing act is fraught with difficulty, but better than unthinking and slavish implementation. Perhaps leaders with a maverick inclination are better suited for this.

Five years on, the Lee Rigby incident is still ever-present as seen by the impromptu shrine which continues to be renewed on an almost daily basis, mainly down to extreme right-wing groups. There is friction between some ethnic groups and the army who still live and work around Woolwich barracks. Overall however, what I have recounted here is a good news story which should have a higher profile. It shows that multi-culturalism can and should be embraced and that it adds to our store of humanity. It also highlights that schools play an invaluable and often unrecognised role in their contribution to community cohesiveness (this phrase was erased from the Ofsted framework at the last revision), welfare and happiness.

Perhaps we need to find more successful ways of measuring it so that the government values it. I would argue that if a school promotes social sustainability, then it will have happier children, staff and families which makes raising attainment easier, showing that “soft” outcomes matter.

  • Dr David Dixon was a headteacher up to 2016 and is now a freelance writer and consultant specialising in education for sustainable development leadership. He runs a not-for-profit leadership course:


  • Poverty and Freedom of Expression: How the poor are being silenced, Knezevic, 2013:
  • Random Acts of Kindness (RAK, 2018):
  • Wellbeing and School Improvement, Reece, 2017 (in Education Forward Moving Schools Into The Future, Price, Crux Publishing).
  • Multicultural Immunisation and Esposito, Ulbricht, 2015, Edinburgh University Press.