The teaching unions have been concerned for some time about the increase in assaults on teachers. In 2007, the NASUWT, the second biggest, found that nearly 3,000 of the 5,000 teachers it surveyed reported that they had been bullied in the previous two years.
In strictly legal terms, schools and local authorities have both a common law, and statutory duty, to safeguard their employees as far as is reasonably practicable. All schools have to take reasonable measures to deal with foreseeable dangers, then monitor, and eventually review them. All employees are entitled to be consulted and to receive information about the action being taken. The school must also have a formal system of recording and reporting all injuries.
To support them, schools can turn to a formidable array of law. The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 can still be invoked where a person suffers cuts, bruises and psychiatric harm. The Public Order Act 1986 outlaws threats and abusive behaviour. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 covers crimes of violence where there is a racist element, as do some of the other anti-discrimination acts, such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which makes it both a criminal and civil offence to harass another person. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 can also be turned to for harassment that causes alarm and distress. The Offensive Weapons Act 1996 - later reinforced by the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 - gives police the right to enter schools to search premises and persons for knives and other weapons. The Education Act 1996 allows action to be taken against threatening parents and others who cause a nuisance in school, and was further strengthened by the action that can be taken against parents and pupils through the Education and Inspections Act 2006. That also includes a clear statement of schools' power to search pupils for weapons.
So, as you can see, there is plenty of scope for heads to flex their muscles.
Chris Lowe, Former headteacher, trade union legal adviser and chief editor of Quick Guide Publishing
Bullying uncovered: a four-part series starting in TES magazine this week.