Ballerina Emma Maguire talks for the first time about losing her mother

By Margaret Driscoll

Royal ballet soloist Emma Maguire on the legacy her family have created for their schoolteacher mother, who died in tragic circumstances, and the Gala performance in Leeds she is organising as a tribute.


Emma Maguire was just three years old when her mother took her to see her first ballet
Emma Maguire was just three years old when her mother took her to see her first ballet

Emma Maguire was just three years old when her mother took her to see her first ballet at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Emma and her elder sister Kerry watched The Snow Queen, perched on the slip seats at the end of the balcony. ‘I recall Mum telling me to be careful as I got into my seat as it was quite high up,’ she says. ‘I don’t remember much about the ballet itself now, but I think that performance must have had a huge effect on me. Something magical and amazing was happening. There was live music, people moving around, beautiful patterns… and Mum really loved all kinds of dance and music, so her passion was passed on to us.’


Ann Maguire, who taught Spanish at a local secondary school, sent her daughters to ballet class almost as soon as they could walk. She loved watching them practise and would make costumes for their performances: Emma still has a little lilac skirt she made for her, decorated with intricate embroidery. No mother could have been more delighted and proud when both girls won places at the Royal Ballet School. Today, Kerry, 36, has given up professional dance and is now an osteopath but Emma, 34, is a soloist with the Royal Ballet, regularly performing at the prestigious Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.


In a few weeks’ time, however, she will be back at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, preparing for a very special performance involving dancers from the Royal Ballet and the Northern Ballet in what is bound to be the most emotional show of her life. Three years ago, her mother was stabbed and killed by one of her pupils, a crime the then prime minister David Cameron described as ‘a truly shocking and appalling tragedy’.


The special gala evening is to be dedicated to Ann’s memory. ‘It will be a night to honour her, an evening of beautiful dance and music, something uplifting that she would have loved,’ says Emma. ‘I hope it will raise money for the charity we have set up in her name and if it does, that will be wonderful. But, most of all, I want it to be a celebration.’

Ann taught for 40 years at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds and was one of the school’s most popular members of staff, as poignantly demonstrated by the mountains of flowers and heartfelt messages from present and former pupils that covered the school gates in the days after her death.


She had come in on her day off to help pupils prepare for exams. As she marked another pupil’s work, 15-year-old Will Cornick crept up behind her and stabbed her in the neck and back seven times with a kitchen knife. Ann tried to flee, but Cornick – who supposedly held a grudge against her for having once given him detention – chased her into another classroom where a fellow teacher blocked the doorway. Cornick dropped the knife and returned to his classroom where he told a friend he was sorry he hadn’t killed her. Ann died later in hospital.


Ann taught for 40 years at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds and was one of the school’s most popular members of staff
Ann taught for 40 years at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds and was one of the school’s most popular members of staff
messages of condolence left by pupils
Flowers left by pupils

The school went into shock. The Maguire family was devastated: Ann had been the linchpin of a noisy, happy home that was suddenly silenced by this act of ‘cowardice and cruelty’. Three years on they are still trying to adjust. Emma, pale and delicate with a dancer’s natural poise, finds it difficult to speak about the crime. This is partly because the legalities that accompany a violent death are still ongoing – the inquest into Ann’s death is to be held in November – and partly because she fears saying anything that might inadvertently increase her father’s, sister’s or brothers’ pain.


As soon as she heard about the attack, in April 2014, Emma rushed home to Leeds and did not go back to London for months. The first few days after the murder remain a blur. She recalls holding her father’s arm as they looked at the flowers outside the school and the throng of people who wanted to share remembrances: ‘One said that if they’d forgotten their gym kit she’d find them something to wear, another that when they didn’t have their dinner money she made sure they got something to eat. She paid. Everybody had a story about Mrs Maguire,’ she says.


‘Every time I went with my mum to the supermarket in Leeds, people would stop and talk to her, and tell her how they were doing. It happened wherever we were. She had taught generations of children so she was part of the fabric of the place and she loved that.’


Messages of condolence covered the school gates in the days after her death
Messages of condolence covered the school gates in the days after her death

Ann grew up in Wigan, where she had two influential teachers – one for Spanish and another who taught her to play the guitar. Both inspired her to become a teacher herself. She spent a year living in Madrid as a teenager, then went to teacher training college in Leeds, where she met her husband Don. They both got jobs at Corpus Christi, Don teaching maths and sociology. In addition to teaching Spanish, Ann gave guitar lessons during the lunch break.


She came from a big, partly Irish family: ‘There was music in the family – Irish dancing and sing-songs – and her background stayed with her. Her faith was very strong, her love of music was very strong, everything that meant something to her as a child became part of what she was [as an adult],’ says Emma.


Soon after Kerry and Emma came along, tragedy struck. Ann’s sister Eileen was diagnosed with cancer and died aged 35. Ann gathered up Eileen’s two small sons, Daniel, eight, and Andrew, six, and raised them as her own. ‘I was only two so I don’t remember a time when they weren’t in my life as my brothers,’ says Emma. ‘We were very close before their mum died – there are lots of photos of me from when I was a baby where we’re all hanging out together – and I think my mum…that was just what she was going to do. And my dad as well…’

Emma (second from right) in a Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake
Emma (second from right) in a Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake

So, though in many ways her life seemed blessed, Ann had experienced loss and sorrow: ‘Maybe that’s why it was important for her to find an outlet. My brother said at her memorial service that music was a direct link to her soul and I really believe that. In those moments when she was struggling she’d always sing or play the guitar – it was her way of coping and probably she wanted all of us to have something that could take us up and away from the everyday.’


All the children turned out to be gifted in one way or another. The girls danced, the boys sang in a cathedral choir and all four played a different musical instrument, as well as the guitar. ‘When I think about the logistics, it must have been so hard for my parents, constantly dropping us off or picking us up, but they never made it feel like a burden. We were really lucky; we had help with everything,’ says Emma. ‘We all had piano lessons; I played the violin until I was 16. We were all encouraged to have a go and it didn’t really matter if you were good or not, it was just another way to express yourself.’


 It’s only now, too, that Emma realises what a wrench it must have been for her mother to send her off to the Royal Ballet School, aged 11. ‘There were a lot of tearful journeys home after my parents had dropped my sister and me, which I knew nothing about at the time.’


Although Emma loved to dance, she found it difficult to settle at boarding school and hated sleeping in a dormitory. Ann, knowing Emma loved Jane Austen, recorded herself reading from her novels to help her relax. ‘You’re suddenly sleeping in a room with 16 people and you miss home, so I had her to comfort me every night,’ says Emma. ‘And I could phone home any time; if there was a problem I could call, even in the middle of the night.’


At 16, when she faced the daunting audition that would take her from the lower to the upper school, her mother was on hand again: ‘She brought me into work with her every day during the Easter holidays so I had somewhere to practise for my upper school audition, then took me swimming for my fitness. She did that every day for three weeks, though I’m sure she needed a holiday. If I needed help, she would find a way, and I am only where I am today because I had that support.’


Emma found that the focus required in order to dance was key to her recovery
Emma found that the focus required in order to dance was key to her recovery

When she found out her mother had died in such brutal circumstances, Emma was anguished. The family unit closed in on itself for months, relying on one another for strength as they tried to piece their lives back together, but even their closeness did not always help. ‘I am still a dad but I cannot help my children understand; can’t help them come to terms; can’t help lessen the pain,’ Emma’s father Don told the court as Cornick was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2014. ‘Mummy would have been much better. I can no longer be a dad. I fail every day. I need Ann.’


Emma found that the focus required in order to dance – that necessity to blot out anything but the movement and the moment – was key to her recovery. ‘It saved me,’ she says. ‘I didn’t go back to work until August [four months after her mother’s death]. The dancers, the staff at the Opera House… I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people; the times when they could see I needed help, they were there.


‘As an artist you’re lucky because you’ve learnt to express your emotions. That season I was in [Frederick Ashton’s] A Month in the Country playing Vera, a young girl who falls in love and isn’t loved back, so there’s a lot of feeling to the part and it is a ballet my mum loved. I felt I owed it to her to get back up there and do what she would have wanted me to.’


In the same spirit, the family has set up a charity, The Ann Maguire Arts Education Fund, which has already raised more than £300,000 to provide grants to individuals who need help to nurture their talent and to introduce young children to the arts. As part of the scheme, The West Yorkshire Playhouse helped a group of primary schoolchildren create an opera based on the story of Romeo and Juliet.


The Maguire family is still seeking answers to some of the troubling questions raised by Ann’s murder. They were politely scathing about a report last year by the Leeds Safeguarding Children Board, which said that the attack could not have been ‘predicted or pre-empted’. A crowdfunded ‘Truth for Ann’ campaign is seeking an independent review, in the belief that there were circumstances and events leading up to the crime that should have put professionals on alert.


Though Cornick was intelligent and polite, with a 100 per cent school attendance record, there were signs that all was not right. When he was 12 he collapsed on a holiday in Cornwall and was diagnosed with diabetes, after which he went through a brief period of self-harming. In 2013, realising that his condition would prevent him from joining the army, Cornick became depressed. At Christmas he sent a Facebook message to a friend talking about ‘brutally murdering’ Mrs Maguire. No one took it seriously. A few months later Ann was dead.


Cornick admitted, to psychiatrists who examined him for pre-trial reports, that he had been planning the murder and had intended to carry it out four days earlier. He had also considered killing other teachers at the school, including one who was pregnant.


The home page of The Ann Maguire Fund website simply bears a beautiful picture of a smiling Ann, a brief note about her passion for helping children and the legend ‘a patron of the arts, forever’. It is the family’s way of asserting their dignity in the face of horror, never mentioning Cornick nor, where possible, his horrific crime.


‘It’s important to us that Mum should be remembered for who she was, not what happened to her,’ says Emma. ‘As a family, we just can’t have that. She was such a positive, amazing person; what matters was what she stood for.’


The Ann Maguire Gala, featuring artists from the Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet, will take place at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on Sunday 3 September at 7.30pm; tickets are still available, £19-£64. Visit for more information.