'Your worst nightmare': Lancashire headteacher's new book on coping with the loss of 'gorgeous little girl' Saffie-Rose Roussos in Manchester Arena bombing

When he woke on the morning of May 23rd, 2017, Chris Upton had no idea who Ariana Grande was. Headteacher at Tarleton Community Primary School, he had no idea that one of his students, Saffie-Rose Roussos, had been at the Manchester Arena the night before. And he had no idea that Salman Abedi had detonated an explosive at the venue, killing 22 innocent people.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 7th March 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Monday, 7th March 2022, 10:35 am

“When I saw the news, I panicked because, while I didn’t know Saffie had been at the arena, I knew a couple of other students had been,” says Chris. “I got into work and phoned the families, who weren’t hurt, before starting to think about how we could support them. Then one of my teachers showed me a Facebook post. It was Saffie’s picture saying ‘missing’.

“I was gobsmacked,” he adds. “But, to be honest, I didn’t think she was dead because we were hearing that children had been taken to the Holiday Inn and, as human beings, you err on the side of hope. But this was your worst nightmare, a student from a rural primary school in Lancashire missing after a domestic terror attack on UK soil… Totally unprecedented.

“I met with staff to prep them and we agreed we’d do an assembly so we could respond honestly to the children’s questions, which we thought was best,” continues Chris. “The kids were a bit wobbly and it was a hard assembly to do, but we faced it because we knew we had to, despite the atmosphere of disbelief.

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Tarleton Community Primary School's tribute to Saffie

“Afterwards, we had another staff meeting about next steps, which is when a member of the office team came in in floods of tears. The place just fell apart.”

Tragically, Saffie had been just five metres away from Abedi when he detonated the bomb as 14,000 fans left the arena. She suffered massive blood loss from shrapnel wounds to her legs and, as she was treated by paramedics, Saffie slipped in and out of consciousness, asking ‘am I going to die?’ Aged just eight, she was the youngest victim of the worst terror attack in Britain for 12 years.

“Time almost paused,” says Chris of the moment he and his staff learned of Saffie’s death. “There was anger and sadness, it was awful to see colleagues and friends like that. It’s very hard to explain… there’s all this emotion, but you’re also thinking ‘what’s next?’ because that’s the job. We had one more lesson before lunch and every teacher went back into class - they were absolutely incredible. I’m immensely proud of them.

“The first step was reaching out to the local authority to see what special support we could get in and, while we did get some, I don’t think it was enough,” adds Chris. “We also decided to tell the children so we could support them ourselves. We have 276 children and I went into each of the 11 classes to speak to every one of those kids.

Chris Upton outside Tarleton Primary School

“Telling Saffie’s friends was the hardest thing… they thought I was joking,” Chris says. “I’ll never forget this primitive growl from one of the children because of how heartbroken they were. It was horrible, but we helped them start that grieving process, because we all have to grieve.”

Himself a father-of-four, Chris was in his first year as head at Tarleton at the time and suddenly found himself at the helm of a school community facing countless challenges. Bombarded by international press and unscrupulous tabloid journalists, some of whom even stooped as low as to pose as police in an attempt to ascertain the Roussos’ family address, the school were also faced with countless understandably-concerned parents, as well.

“That evening, every parent came to pick up their kids because they all just wanted to see their children,” says Chris. “School is a place of sanctuary for students, but the atmosphere was eerie; the kind of atmosphere you feel when you visit a concentration camp. Just horror.

“For months and years afterwards, we had children leaving class in floods of tears because of the PTSD,” he adds. “And, not only did we have to look after them, but we had to make sure we looked after staff as well, because initially you’ve got so much adrenaline pumping through you, but you can’t stay in that state forever.”

Chris Upton in his office

Reflecting on his experiences, Chris had always wanted to write a book about how the school community coped so as to provide insight into what it was like for all involved, but also to offer help, guidance, and empathy to others who find themselves in a similarly tragic situation.

“There tends to be a lot of focus on prevention but nothing really about ‘what if it does happen?’ explains Chris. “So it was at the back of my head, but I didn’t feel like I was at the point of being able to write it until the lockdown in January 2021. Lisa and Andrew gave their full support - it wouldn’t have been written otherwise - so I just wanted to help others understand.”

The result is 'Searching for the Sparkle: A School's Journey of Recovery'. Launched in Penwortham last week, all proceeds from the book's sales are going towards a charity set up by Chris called the Sparkle Bean Trust, which will endeavour to provide small grants to primary schools in the event of a sudden death so school leaders can make necessary provisions for their community.

“It was very hard to write at times because it took me back to a life-changing experience for the school, the teachers, the kids, the family,” says Chris. “It’ll stay with us all one way or another for the rest of our lives. But looking back also made me proud of the staff and how we helped the kids.

Tarleton Community Primary School headteacher Chris Upton

“I remember myself and my deputy Janette [Higson] once grabbed lunch in the local supermarket and we saw some of Saffie’s friends, who had by this time moved on to the local high school, performing with the school choir,” he adds. “They were thriving. For me, that was a key moment because I thought ‘we did a good job’ when all that mattered was those children and making sure they had a childhood.

“Me and my staff were there for each other as a family so we could make sure people were safe and happy in school,” Chris continues. “Kids have a right to education, to feel safe, and to be happy and, when that’s stripped away, you’ve got to work hard to get it back.”

Our time coming to an end, I ask Chris what memories of Saffie will stay with him forever. Memories of the eight-year-old whom her father Andrew described as his ‘perfect, precious, beautiful daughter’. Of the girl who would put empty yoghurt pots in her brother's shoes so she could beat him to the car and get her favourite seat. Of the daughter who would leave notes saying 'I love you' around the house for her family.

“I’ll always remember how she always made her friends laugh,” says Chris. “She was a gorgeous little girl from a wonderful family. It breaks my heart.”

Chris Upton in class with students
Headteacher Chris Upton with students at Tarleton Community Primary School
Chris Upton with students at Tarleton Community Primary School
Headteacher Chris Upton
Chris Upton with students in front of their stage dedicated to Saffie