Schools hit by rise in family violence

Katrina Tweedie

One in three children is living with domestic abuse, according to a research study which has far-reaching implications for the performance and behaviour of pupils in class.

New research, to be published within weeks, appears to confirm that the extent of the problem is vastly greater than expected.

Although the survey, carried out by South Ayrshire Women's Aid among senior pupils in all nine of the authority's secondaries, was small in scale, it found that an astonishing 32 per cent of young people said that they witnessed domestic abuse at home.

If this was replicated among the 835,000 pre-school and school pupils in Scotland, it would mean that some 267,000 children may be in families with abusive relationships - more than double the official estimate from Scottish Women's Aid that more than 100,000 children live in such circumstances.

Sandra Paton of South Ayrshire Women's Aid said that the findings "shook her", despite having worked for 14 years in refuge centres for battered women.

Ms Paton urged schools to acknowledge "the crucial supporting role" they should be playing in confronting the impact of domestic abuse on pupils'

performance and behaviour. "I believe that a lot of the problems that teachers are presented with come on the back of domestic abuse," she said.

Work with children in refuges is now identifying how they cope with their situations in school. "Many of them have a huge need to take back power, to strike at a society that has failed them, and they don't always rationalise it," Ms Paton said. "Unfortunately, when children fail at school, teachers may unwittingly add to their problems, primarily by using complaints, criticisms and condemnations similar to those the children experience at home."

One of the warnings from the survey echoes that given recently by Kathleen Marshall, commissioner for children and young people, who attracted adverse headlines when she cautioned teachers against inappropriate shouting. The enormity of what that could mean for some is reflected in a comment by one of the South Ayrshire youngsters: "Some teachers shout nearly as loud as my dad does."

The differences between responses among children experiencing domestic abuse and those who are not were clearly defined in the survey. Fear, sadness and loneliness were the emotions most frequently cited among "experiencing" pupils, with a number claiming they felt suicidal.

The Scottish Executive announced a strategy in March, backed initially by pound;2 million, which will be used to integrate domestic abuse training into staff development programmes for teachers and other professionals. The Executive plans to spend pound;32 million on the problem over six years.

Alison Elliot, Scotland's first education resource worker dealing specifically with domestic abuse, has trained or organised training for 824 staff in Glasgow's education service and others who work in schools. "A lot of the work I am doing is about awareness raising because many teachers may not have recognised the impact that domestic abuse has on children," she says.

"Teachers have said to me that it is only once they have had the training that they would have the confidence and support to act on a gut feeling that a child was experiencing abuse."

Several other authorities are funding similar positions in an effort to educate teachers and raise awareness among children.

A spokeswoman from the Executive said: "The purpose of teaching pupils about domestic abuse is twofold. It is vitally important that teachers, who may come into contact with children who are living with domestic abuse, are able to give an appropriate response.

"It also allows children to understand the problem that exists and feel free to speak openly about it. We hope that, by educating children and young people from an early age, this will work towards the prevention of domestic abuse."

Leader 22; Scotland Plus 2-3

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Katrina Tweedie

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