'People just fell apart – it was very challenging'

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The terror attack at the Manchester Arena in 2017 resulted in the death of 22 people, among them eight-year-old Saffie-Rose Roussos. Jersey-born Chris Upton – who is head teacher at the primary school attended by Saffie-Rose – spoke to Tom Ogg about dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy and the book he has written about the experience

THE Manchester Arena bombing of 2017 is back on the front pages of the national newspapers today.

The tragic incident – which saw an Islamist suicide bomber killing 22 people and injuring 1,017 more with a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb – is currently at the centre of an ongoing independent public inquiry.

To date, the inquiry has revealed that police received intelligence on the bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, three years prior to the attack, but failed to act on it, and that a security guard at the venue had thought Abedi was acting suspiciously, but failed to intervene for fear of being called racist (‘I was scared of being wrong and being branded a racist’).

On the night of the bombing, American singer-songwriter Ariana Grande had performed a concert at the 21,000-capacity arena and it was as the audience left the venue that Abedi detonated his deadly device.

At the time, Grande – who has sold 85 million records worldwide – was one of the biggest pop stars in the world and, not surprisingly, the majority of those in the audience were young girls, teenagers and parents.

Among the youngest victims was Saffie-Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old from Leyland, Lancashire, who attended Tarleton Community Primary School, and who was at the concert with her mother, Lisa, and elder sister, Ashlee, both of who were injured in the attack.

Now a new book is being released paying tribute to Saffie-Rose and documenting the devastating aftermath of her death.

Titled Searching for the Sparkle: A School’s Journey of Recovery, the paperback has been written by Chris Upton, who is head teacher at Tarleton Community Primary School, and who details how he and his teaching staff helped children at the school to cope with the death of their friend and fellow pupil.

‘I never thought I would ever have to deal with anything like this when I became a head teacher,’ says Jersey-born Chris, chatting from his home in Lancashire.

‘Initially I hadn’t known Saffie was even at the concert, although I’d known of two other little girls from the school who were going. I’m out at the school gates every morning and they had told me all about the concert.

Chris Upton

‘Like many, I went to bed not knowing there had been an incident in Manchester and then I woke up the next day to discover the BBC News app announcing the news. I went straight into school to phone [the families of the two girls] and, fortunately, I discovered that they were both unscathed – physically, if not mentally.

‘I was sitting in my office and thinking about how I was going to be able to support those girls, and it was then that a teacher came into the office. He held up his phone and showed me a Facebook post with Saffie’s picture and the word “missing” above it. That was the first I knew about it.’

Despite the severity of the attack at the Manchester Arena, Chris admits that he initially believed Saffie-Rose would be found alive amid the wreckage.

‘I feel really silly saying it now, but I genuinely thought she was still alive,’ he says. ‘It was horrible to comprehend that she wouldn’t be.

‘I knew that some of the children would have seen the Facebook post about Saffie and so I organised a staff meeting to discuss how we were going to handle the situation. We decided we would just keep things as normal as possible, and, if children asked questions, we would tell them what we knew, which is that Saffie was missing and everyone was looking for her.’

At 11am, Chris held the daily school assembly and spoke to his young pupils about the importance of maintaining hope.

‘There weren’t any tears but it was a very subdued atmosphere as the children left the hall,’ he recalls. ‘I then organised another staff meeting during playtime – I knew we all needed to be quite dynamic about what was happening – and it was during this meeting that a member of the office staff came into the room. She was in floods of tears and just said: “She’s dead”.’

The response around the staffroom was, says Chris, ‘very, very raw’.

‘People just fell apart, as you can imagine. It was really challenging.’

The grief-stricken staff nevertheless rallied themselves and vowed to continue teaching for the benefit of the children.

‘They were just tremendous,’ says Chris. ‘When we found out Saffie had died, I told them I was happy for them to just put on a DVD or something, but they all decided they were going to wipe away their tears, get back into their classrooms and teach properly. I honestly don’t know how they did it because I don’t think I would have been able to.’

Over the weeks and months that followed, the pupils at the school varied in their ability to process what had happened to Saffie-Rose, with many of her close friends struggling to cope.

‘It is awful to see such young children having to go through something so awful,’ says Chris. ‘Sadly, one of Saffie’s best friends was diagnosed with PTSD and this affected her for a number of years.’

Saffie-Rose Roussos

Somewhat inevitably given the international coverage of the Manchester Arena bombing, the media became an unwanted presence at the school, with one particularly unscrupulous journalist pretending to be a police officer in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the home address of Saffie-Rose’s grieving family.

‘They were really quite untoward,’ says Chris. ‘All the horror stories you hear about certain aspects of the media – that is what we were dealing with.’

Yet there were lighter moments to be found amid the grief, such as when comedian and children’s author David Walliams visited the school, much to the surprise of both teachers and staff.

‘David made contact with us and said he wanted to come and cheer the children up,’ says Chris. ‘We kept it very secret, only myself and a few others knew about it beforehand – partly because we wanted to surprise the children, but also because we didn’t want to give the press another excuse to camp on our doorstep.

‘David was absolutely fab. We had a meeting in my office and he was quite nervous – he was very much not like what you see on TV. But he was very kind and he wanted to know about everything that had happened. We then snuck him into the hall and he did the school assembly, which was just fantastic. He also gave two books to every child in the school, and he gave us a set of signed books for the school library.

‘Now that I think about it, a lot of the signed ones seem to have disappeared,’ adds Chris with a laugh. ‘I’m not sure where they’ve gone – they’re probably on eBay somewhere.’

It was watching the children and teachers responding positively to David Walliams during the assembly that made Chris realise what had been missing from the school since the death of Saffie-Rose.

‘I knew we needed to have fun,’ he says. ‘We needed it as part of our recovery. Yes, Saffie had died and it was horrible, but she had also lived and we needed to celebrate that. It made me reconsider my approach.’

The funeral of Saffie-Rose Roussos took place during the first week of the school summer holidays in 2017 (of all those killed in the Manchester Arena bombing, Saffie-Rose was the last to be buried due to her mother having been in a coma following the attack). When the school resumed in September, there was, says Chris, ‘a feeling of nothingness’.

‘And then the media went big for the six month anniversary of the bombing and it really triggered stuff in the children. I don’t know why the media did this because six months isn’t generally considered a particularly significant period of time. It must have been a slow news day.’

Not surprisingly, the first anniversary of the bombing would prove to be even more problematic.

‘Oh, the children were really frightened. They were so scared. They had this real fear – “oh, no, it’s May”. It made it very hard. It was an ongoing struggle, especially with certain children. There were days where some of them simply couldn’t learn. They were just in floods of tears. But then there were the days when they could learn. All children have a right to an education so we made sure that, when the children were able to learn, we put the support in.

‘With children, it is sometimes like dominoes,’ he adds. ‘If one child is upset, you get a chain reaction and soon you have a lot of very frightened children. I’m sure you can imagine how challenging that was.’

An especially difficult occasion arose when Year 6 pupils were required to sit their SAT exams: ‘Children around the country were prepping for it, but our children were frightened that someone was going to come to the school and let off a bomb during the exams.’

Saffie-Rose Roussos

Of course, the head teacher of a school is responsible not only for the wellbeing of pupils, but also the wellbeing of staff, and many of those at Tarleton Community Primary School had been left deeply traumatised by the tragedy.

‘When Saffie’s closest friends left the school, it wasn’t “job done”, but there was a sense that we had got the group of children who were most affected [by her death] through the rest of their primary education and into high school, and that was a good thing.

‘However, I think some of the teachers really struggled after that. I think they had been so focussed on the children that they’d hadn’t taken the time to think of themselves.’

Raised in St Martin, Chris lived in Jersey until the age of 18 (‘my parents still live in Maufant Village today’) and was educated at Trinity Primary School and Grainville School, before studying A-Levels at Hautlieu.

‘After graduating, I came up to Ormskirk [a market town in West Lancashire] to do my teacher training and I’ve lived in Lancashire ever since.’

Prior to relocating to Tarleton Community Primary School in 2016, Chris spent time teaching in a school in what he describes as ‘an incredibly tough area’.

‘My first headship was in one of those towns where it all seems to have gone a bit wrong since the 1960s and 1970s,’ he says. ‘There were some amazing people, though, and some right characters as well, and it was a great place to learn my craft.’

By contrast, Tarleton is the kind of quaint picturesque village at which the north of England excels, nestled as it is within the Lancashire borough of South Ribble.

‘What the Manchester Arena bombing taught me about terrorism is the sheer randomness of it,’ says Chris. ‘If it can happen to someone from a rural village like Tarleton, it can happen to anyone. You see things on the news, bombs going off in countries like Syria and Iraq, and you desensitise yourself to it, but when it is on your own doorstep, you see firsthand the devastating impact it has.’

The decision to revisit the events of 2017 with Searching for the Sparkle: A School’s Journey of Recovery came about during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown.

‘I had always wanted to write about it and I felt 2021 was the right time to do it,’ says Chris. ‘I wrote the book between January and May, typically writing after work until one or half one in the morning. There were elements of research involved as well, such as looking up emails that I hadn’t seen since 2017, and it was quite a journey getting it to the point where it was ready to be published.’

The front and back cover of Searching for a Sparkle by Chris Upton

The book also gave Chris the opportunity to revisit some of the areas in which he felt – and continues to feel – aggrieved.

‘I had a grievance with the amount of support given to the school by the local authority and the government,’ he says. ‘I hope to right those wrongs and ensure that other schools are given the support they need when they need it. Ours was an unprecedented situation, of course, but I do think schools should be better supported.

‘Fortunately, we’ve since worked with the Home Office and the Department for Education and we’ve made good progress in terms of the resources that are made available to teachers in the event of losing a pupil.’

Elsewhere in the book, Chris touches upon the ongoing Manchester Arena inquiry.

‘I was adding bits to the book up until the end of last year and so it is quite up to date,’ he says. ‘When I read it now, I feel a real sense of pride in my team and what we’ve achieved together. The people who’ve read the book have told me it generated both tears and laughter, and that is what I wanted from it because that is what we had to go through in terms of enabling the children to recover.

‘The word that comes back to me most often is “wow”,’ he adds. ‘People read the book and say “I can’t believe you did all that”. I think it’s an important book to have written.’

Ultimately, however, there are two people whose opinions of the book take precedence over all others: Lisa and Andrew Roussos, the parents of Saffie Rose.

‘The family are obviously finding the ongoing inquiry very difficult,’ says Chris. ‘Lisa and Andrew knew I was going to write the book because we’ve always had a very close friendship and we speak to one another about the things we are doing. I put together a chapter-by-chapter summary beforehand for them to check over because I wanted to make sure there was no information in the book that they didn’t want shared. I was very pleased when they gave me the green light.

‘I posted copies of the book down to them recently but I don’t yet know whether or not they have read it. If I’m honest, it is their thoughts on the book that I am most nervous about. It really doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks of it. As long as I can do right by Lisa and Andrew, that is incredibly important for me.’

* Searching for the Sparkle: A School’s Journey to Recovery by Chris Upton is available now on Amazon UK as both a paperback and an e-book. All proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Sparkle Bean Trust, which is a charity launched by Chris Upton and his team of trustees to raise funds to assist head teachers and school staff across the UK during difficult periods.

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