That Philip was a much loved Headteacher, murdered when intervening to help a student being attacked by a gang of teenagers at the school-gate, made national headlines. The effect on his students and the shock waves across all schools and communities still ripple today, twenty years on. Our personal, family tragedy has been lived out in full public view, still with us, never leaving us.
As a family we were resolute, however, that Philip would not be defined by the intensity of our grief or the manner of his death – but by the spirit with which he had lived his life, his values and inspiration, and his firm belief that ‘Every child is capable of greatness.’
The Philip Lawrence Awards were created by Michael Howard, then Home Secretary and ever since an active supporter, to reflect this belief. Established in 1996, it was the first scheme of its kind on a national stage run by and for young people. Funded by the Home Office but independent of government, young people from some of the most marginalised communities have shared stages with Ministers and Prime Ministers. In twenty years we have shown how young people across the country brim with ideas and creative solutions to some of society’s hardest hitting issues. Working together, they have taken decisive action in order to make a real and lasting difference in their communities. For many of those young people, the recognition they received was life-changing.
We recently paused, however, to reflect on the future of the Philip Lawrence Awards. Government funding ended in the first wave of spending cuts. We took a long hard look at what we have achieved in the twenty years that have passed, what has changed during that time, and what we should now do.
There are some great examples of award schemes that showcase young people’s creative talent and positive contributions. However, despite this proliferation, it is currently the case that positive, prominent messages about young people are rarely evidenced in media or political discourse. Instead, it would seem that the default background to young people’s lives is, overall, a pessimistic one. Some public figures and politicians of all persuasions, however well-intentioned, tend to focus on telling people how hopeless their lives are – thus by extension creating in them the feeling, conscious or unconscious, that they are hopeless. They fail to realise that, no matter what their current circumstances, young people innately have aspirations, they want to be able to contribute to their own community, to help others in the wider world – and resent being told that they don’t or can’t.
The country is now at war and this obviously demands the headlines. But there is a danger in ignoring the smaller but no less devastating wars that take place on our own streets. This year, for instance, in London alone there has been a sharp increase in the number of teenage stabbings. Shameful incidences of Islamophobia against some of our finest young people are growing – a specific problem which we hope to tackle vigorously in the new year.
A bold, practical counter-narrative is vital and timely. It should exemplify young people’s respect and compassion for others and their interest in the relationship between the individual and society. There is a talent pool of young people as part of the fellowship of past Philip Lawrence Award winners who are now young adults, primed and ready to step up and contribute more. The debt I owe to them and to the many people who have supported us is one I cannot pay. It is beyond measure.
We want to re-ignite and develop that positive agenda for young people. We will support others – whether in Government, charities or community groups – in championing young people, and further, in work with young offenders where education is the driver for change in their lives, challenging inequalities and unlocking their talents. We will be making the case to the Government from its starting point of being ‘positive for youth’.
To that end we hope to contribute to the Government’s Youth Justice review initiated by Michael Gove MP who, when a journalist at The Times before entering Parliament, helped promote those values which led to the founding of the Philip Lawrence Awards. We are also delighted to continue our collaboration and support of the charity Nacro, in particular for its work in education for young offenders, those with complex needs at risk of offending, and a true cause of social justice for those all too often overlooked and marginalised by society. Many have committed crimes due fundamentally to deprivations in their own lives. Experience makes me sure that they will embrace a scheme which gives them the confidence to see beyond their own lives to the lives of others; to discover the missing piece of the moral jigsaw of their lives; to find a future different to their past.
Outside the Old Bailey, after the Guilty verdict, our family liaison officer faced the media. “Mrs Lawrence described her husband’s murder as an earthquake which has destabilised the very foundations of their lives,” he said.
I haven’t been able to rebuild those foundations; it is simply too hard. But life is about more than stability. Life is full of contradictions.
Twenty years or twenty minutes. Philip’s values transcend time. His legacy exists in our four children who work hard in caring professions. And sometimes quietly, sometimes with great noise, it reaches far beyond our own family with the application of his maxim that ‘Every child is capable of greatness.’
Mrs Frances Lawrence