Teachers attacked by pupils are coming under increasing pressure from heads and governors to keep silent in order to preserve the marketability of their schools, according to two teacher unions. This is making it difficult to form an accurate picture of the types of assault occurring and to judge whether the incidents are becoming more frequent, writes Josephine Gardiner.
"More and more heads don't want their schools to be identified as problem schools," said a spokesman for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "Teachers are being persuaded that it is not in the interest of the school for these attacks to be made public."
NASUWT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers agree that the cases that reach their ears represent only the tip of a very large iceberg. Jerry Bartlett, legal officer for the NASUWT, went further by comparing teachers assaulted by pupils to rape victims. These teachers often experience an appalling and misplaced sense of guilt, he said. "There's a persistent idea within the profession that if they are assaulted, it's somehow their own fault, that the situation would never have occurred if they were competent in disciplining pupils."
This is another factor discouraging teachers from reporting attacks, he suggested, for if an assault by a pupil is seen to reflect badly on a teacher's professional skills, he or she becomes less employable.
Another reason why teachers can be reluctant to bring in the police is the very fine line between self-defence and assault. Teachers who defend themselves too enthusiastically can end up in the dock accused of assaulting the pupil. More generally, it may be that the sharp focus on children's rights, enshrined in the Children Act, combined with the constant exposure of and discussion about child abuse, is making teachers tread warily for fear of retaliatory accusations.
Statistics gathered for the Elton Report on school discipline in 1989 found that one in every 200 teachers had suffered a violent assault and one in seven had been verbally abused. There seems to be no reason to believe that the situation has improved, but clear evidence that violence is getting worse is hard to come by, though the increasing number of pupils being excluded from school would suggest that it is.
The Department for Education does not hold figures on assaults or on the number of pupils excluded from school, although a Department for Education survey reported a total of 6,743 exclusions between 1990 and 1992. The NASUWT does record the number of occasions where the union has formally authorised members to refuse to teach certain pupils. So far this year these have amounted to 37, compared to 17 last year, but the figure for 1987 was 50 and that for1990, 10, so it is not possible to identify a steady increase.
Jerry Bartlett said NASUWT handled about 300 cases a year centrally, with others dealt with by regional branches. "I take at least one telephone call a day about an assault, today I took three," he said.
The union plans to survey the entire membership early next year "to ask them to confirm or deny what we believe is an increasing trend in schools of pressure on teachers to keep quiet about assaults and an increase in bullying of teachers by heads and governors."
The senior solicitor at the ATL, Philip Lott, also be-lieves that the situation is getting worse. "Some quite horrific assaults are happening and the impression we get is that they are certainly increasing. It is difficult to point to statistics as the evidence tends to be anecdotal and many cases don't get as far as the union, but the number of serious assaults coming to us is increasing." Few local authorities train teachers in how to tackle classroom violence, said Mr Lott, and this is "a problem that needs to be addressed urgently".
The pressure on teachers not to make a fuss is not only exerted by schools, says Jerry Bartlett. Local authorities are often keen to keep problematic pupils in mainstream schools to avoid giving them a statement and incurring the huge cost of special education. "It's very cheap to put a violent child in an ordinary school and forget him," he said, adding that it was unusual for a violent, as opposed to a disabled, child to be given a statement because the parents often refuse to acknowledge the problem.
Britain's largest teaching union, however, presented a rather different picture. Graham Clayton, Jerry Bartlett's opposite number at the National Union of Teachers, said that his union had "not observed any significant increase in assaults", and that pressure on teachers to keep quiet "hasn't manifested itself in practice". The union deals with about 100 cases a year. Mr Clayton seemed anxious to deny the "mythology" that teachers were reluctant to report attacks in case it reflected badly on their teaching. "Our members don't necessarily see the law as the right way to deal with the problem."
One of the key recommendations of the Elton Report was that training in how to manage violence or the threat of it should be built into every initial teacher training course. Whether this has happened is unclear because the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the body that examined and accredited teacher training courses, no longer exists. Roy Beardsworth, academic secretary of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, said: "It's likely that most courses include some advice or training . . . but we have no national data. Individual courses are no longer scrutinised in detail by any umbrella body."