Why we should teach about death in schools

Illustration from Project Eileen of teenagers playing musical instruments in a band

Four minute read

Sharing their personal experiences of bereavement inspired long-standing friends, Annabelle and Louise, to set up a small charity with a big vision. Project Eileen aims to give all teenagers access to the resources and skills they need to support themselves and each other when someone dies.

“When I was at school, a friend of mine was orphaned,” recalls Louise. “She turned to me for help, but I didn’t know what to say or do. When I lost my own father later in life, I realised that people didn’t know what to say to me either.”

Louise’s experience chimed with Annabelle, whose mum died when she was sixteen. “No one knew how to handle it,” she says. “So I buried it and moved on. I got on with my A Levels. It was a long time before it hit me.

“As an adult, I moved to Singapore with my family. While we were there, my husband died in an accident. As well as my own grief, I had to find a way to support my 10-year-old son.

"Schools have come a long way since I was a teenager, but my son didn’t always know what he needed or how to ask people to help him. The teachers and the counselling service were good, but the other kids didn’t know what to say.”

Resources for schools to talk about death

It was obvious to both Louise and Annabelle that schools needed to be better resourced so that they could support young people in dealing with death. And so Project Eileen was born.

The two women educated themselves, brought other people on board and drew on their professional experience to create a multimedia, interactive set of resources that schools could use with 13-15 year-olds to explore death and bereavement over the course of six lessons.

Annabelle explains: “Teachers told us that when a death happens in school, they find it hard to handle. These resources are designed to help them too. They are designed to open up conversations around a central story. This gives the students a bit of distance, so that they can discuss the issues in relation to fictional characters and what those characters say and do.”

Louise scripted the 45-minute animated film, narrated by Sir Tony Robinson, which forms the core of the materials. “The story follows a group of teenagers when one of their gang dies,” she tells us. “There are other deaths mentioned in the story as well, to show that different people will have different experiences.”

Project Eileen founders, Louise and Annabelle, with patron Andrew Barton
Project Eileen founders, Louise and Annabelle, with patron Andrew Barton

Making death education accessible to all

Annabelle, a former modern languages and PSHE teacher, wrote the accompanying materials, which include notes for teachers and focused questions for students.

“We felt it would be most useful to provide a complete resource — everything a teacher needs to deliver a lesson is there. It’s flexible too, so schools can adapt it to suit the time they have available.”

It’s very important to Louise and Annabelle and the Project Eileen team that these resources are accessible to all young people, which means that they are free for schools to use.

“There is no payment necessary,” says Annabelle. “We’re a charity and raise funds in other ways to support the programme. All a school has to do is register on our website and be verified by us. Then they have access to all the resources to download, as well as support by email or phone. Schools who are in a position to do so can offer a donation or raise funds to support us.

“We always signpost to other organisations as well,” adds Louise. “It could be charities, like Child Bereavement UK, Cruse or Young Minds, or specialist support for suicide or military deaths. We ask schools to have this information accessible to teachers and students.”

Helping young people to open up about bereavement

It’s still early days for Project Eileen, but they are already starting to see the impact of their work.

“We ran a pilot in two large, state secondary schools,” says Louise. “One used it with Years 9 and 10, the other just with Year 10. But we’re now open to all UK schools.

"We chose to focus on this age because this is when young people want to turn to their friends, rather than to adults. We want to give them the tools to do this and to gain life skills that they can take into adulthood.

“Teachers tell us that during these lessons, young people naturally start to open up. In one of the schools, there was a bunch of boys who all played football together. When they were in Year 8, one of the boys died.

"When they experienced our lessons in Year 10, it emerged that none of them felt they had talked to each other properly at the time, because they hadn’t known what to say. Now, two years later, they could begin to have those conversations.

“One of the lessons focuses on how to prepare for and what to expect from a funeral. This is especially important for teenagers who might never have been to a funeral before. There’s still a culture which says that children shouldn’t go to funerals.”

Changing the curriculum

Project Eileen is also joining with others to call for death education to become a mandatory part of the national curriculum. They are co-sponsoring a parliamentary petition.

Louise continues: “In our experience, schools usually have a bereavement policy, but it’s only used reactively. There’s nothing proactive. We want education about death and bereavement to be accessible to every teenager. We want every school in the UK to know about us. It’s quite a challenge! But we are determined to make it happen. Now is that time”

Find out more about Project Eileen and how your school can sign up, by visiting the Project Eileen website or follow them on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Linked In.

Read more about talking with children about death. To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

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