In 20 years of teaching, award winner John Atkinson has never had a more heartbreaking day than when he arrived at school one Monday morning to be told one of his Year Six pupils had died.
Edward Dee, 10, “a superhero in our class”, a boy who loved sports and was a budding triathlete, had caught meningitis and had died the previous day. His sudden death shocked the whole community at Clifton Primary School in St Annes.
Just the week before, he had been picked out as the “best boy in strength, stamina and speed” in his class by the UK Military School team which had come in to offer personal development, physical and mental skills activities.
He was a house captain, head of the school council, bright and fit. But meningitis is no respecter of fitness and can affect any child and, for parents, the speed with which it can become fatal is terrifying.
John said: “He was full of life, a star, he was always putting himself forward for things. It was devastating.
“I was in the headteacher’s office and she broke the news. I was in bits. Instinctively your thoughts turn to the family, then all the children in his class who have grown up with Edward.
I was in the headteacher’s office and she broke the news. I was in bits. Instinctively your thoughts turn to the family, then all the children in his class who have grown up with Edward.
“We went into class and Mrs Legge told them. Some of the children went home, some stayed to be with their friends. We then went round to see Edward’s parents Justin and Liz.
“You have to be strong for the children. There were 31 children in that class looking to me, looking to their adults for a lead in that terrible time and that’s what we had to do.”
And it is for that leadership and for helping to steer the school through that most difficult 12 months since Edward’s death in December last year, that Mr Atkinson won the Inspirational Teacher of the Year Award in the Gazette Education Awards for 2017.
John had always wanted to be a teacher. As a youngster he had helped look after his little brother, helping his mum, and at 15-years-old he took over the man’s role in the family when his granddad died.
“I enjoyed looking after my brother and entertaining him and his friends and that’s when I thought about becoming a teacher.”
After gaining a degree in English and education at Bangor University his first job was at Clifton, teaching junior children.
After four years he moved to the infants classes, where he first taught Edward in Year Two.
He then moved up to Year Six where he is now, the crucial SATS year before high school, where he once again teamed up with Edward and his classmates.
“I love teaching, every day is different and the children are inspiring. You get such a sense of achievement watching them develop through the year.
“I enjoy the fun of the classroom. The range of things you have to keep learning keeps you fresh and the children keep you young.
“I like to have as much fun as the children, but we are a team, working together in the classroom hard, but you have to have some fun. If the children are enjoying themselves too, they will want to learn.
“Every year is completely different and I very much try to be a role-model in every class that I work in.”
That ability to be a role model was tested to the limit when Edward died but John said the strong community surrounding the school, his teacher wife Candice, the parents, the teachers and his classroom assistant Jane Allen helped everyone get through.
“We are a team. Both of us were massively affected by Edward’s death but Jane was there for everyone.
“It was the scariest time in the classroom. I have always known I knew how to teach, but in that situation you ask yourself what do I do , what do I say? But the children and the staff got us through.
“We were due to have a talent show before Christmas two weeks after Edward died. He was an extremely talented boy and a role model for the school and was going to be playing a significant part.
“We knew we had to go on. We talked to his mum Liz, and made sure his talents too were celebrated in that show.
“After Christmas we had to make sure that the rest of his classmates got the absolute best they could from Clifton in their remaining months at school, but at the same time help them to cope and honour Edward’s memory. Edward will never be forgotten at this school.”
He said everyone rallied round to give the children whatever support they needed to deal with the loss of their friend. They were all affected in different ways. And the school made sure the family and the community were kept involved.
“The children needed a lot of support. I would like to think we did everything we could in order to talk about everything openly. Nothing closed off or shut away, keeping lines of communication open.
“We created a memory tree to put messages on and allow the children to say what they were thinking, the Methodist minister who took Edward’s funeral came in to talk to them.
“Being active and taking part in the many different events held in Edward’s memory helped the children a lot. I know it helped Edward’s family and friends too and they were the most important people to consider when organising these events.”
The Sunday after his death, dozens of school friends and families from across the Fylde and beyond took part in a walk from Starr Gate to Blackpool, handing out leaflets about the disease and to start a fund-raising drive to support the Meningitis Now charity.
The school organised a triathlon to raise money for the Edward Dee Forever Fund set up in Edward’s memory and took part in the ongoing efforts to raise awareness of meningitis.
Last July, Steve Dayman, founder of Meningitis Now and who himself lost his son Spencer to this cruellest of diseases, visited Clifton Primary to see the end of the triathlon and thank everyone for their fundraising efforts.
John was asked to speak at Edward’s funeral, which he said was a privilege and an honour. He said the close ties between the school and the families of all the children helped keep everyone strong and the community joined in with the events to raise funds and awareness of meningitis. “Being active and taking part helped the children a lot. I’d like to think it helped Edward’s family and friends too since they are the most important ones.
“Liz and Justin have done a fantastic job over the year, raising more than £60,000 and supporting Meningitis Now.
“We had a residential at Hothersall Lodge near Longridge in the summer term, where the children had loads of activities that Edward would have absolutely loved. He was still with us there.
“We told the people there and they let us plant an apple tree for Edward. We talked about Edward and how he is still a part of our class. and everything we do.
“The tree will be there when I go with our current Year Six class this summer. That is comforting.”
Clifton Primary headteacher Rachel Legge was delighted when John won The Gazette award.
She said: “John is an incredible teacher, who is much loved and respected by children and parents alike. He has worked at Clifton for over 20 years and has Clifton at his core.
“He dedicates a lot of time and effort, not only to his Year Six pupils, but also to providing wider opportunities for the children. He organises all the sports clubs throughout the year, leading and coaching the football team, running club and other activities. He also runs the Healthy Schools Team, encouraging children to have a healthy lifestyle. This includes promoting positive well being, behaviour and achievement in school.
“His dedication was truly tested over the last year following the sudden death of one of our pupils, Edward Dee.
“John, with support from Mrs Allen, comforted the children through their grief and was there for each and every child whenever they needed him, despite battling his own grief. Edward was a truly inspirational young man and his death left a huge void in school, with the ripples being felt by staff, children and parents across the whole school community. I had total admiration for John when he spoke at Edward’s funeral. The strength he showed was phenomenal. Through his words, he was able to help everyone focus on celebrating this incredible young man’s life.”