Attacked with a tie, accused of assault

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Parents and unions lock horns on behaviour as teacher cleared

Unions have called for greater recognition of the problems caused by pupil misbehaviour after a teacher who fought off an attack by a pupil was cleared by a professional conduct committee.

A parents' body disputed suggestions that the behaviour of pupils had worsened, however, and insisted that teachers were responsible for maintaining order in their classrooms.

West Lothian maths teacher John Watson was suspended for five months by his local authority and initially charged with assault over his reaction when a pupil pulled his tie so hard that he was left struggling to breathe.

The procurator fiscal took no further legal action in the case, but Mr Watson later had to face a General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) disciplinary panel, which last month declared him fit to teach.

On 21 March last year, Mr Watson allowed an S3 class 20 minutes of free time after a practice exam. Pupils were moving around the room, two girls were dancing and some boys started arm-wrestling, which Mr Watson joined in with. When the class was preparing to leave, "Pupil A" leaned across a table and pulled hard on Mr Watson's tie.

In an incident reportedly lasting 12 seconds, Mr Watson repeatedly told Pupil A to let go, then took hold of the boy's clothing around the chest and neck. The General Teaching Council for Scotland's fitness to teach panel heard that pupils witnessed Mr Watson turning red and that his breathing was "compromised".

Pupil A refused to let go, so Mr Watson forced the boy on to a table. He held one hand on the boy's neck and another on his clothing. The pupil, now lying facing upward, eventually released the tie.

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union would not comment on individual cases but said it was "obviously essential that the GTCS takes all evidence and any mitigating factors into account before making its rulings".

He added: "Teachers have a difficult job and dealing with classroom indiscipline is a significant and highly challenging, aspect of most teachers' working day. Dealing with low-level indiscipline, in particular, continues to take up a significant amount of teaching time and is often a cause of significant frustration for both teachers and pupils."

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, welcomed the GTCS verdict. Pupil misbehaviour and aggression had become worse over the years, he said, but some headteachers and local authorities were reluctant to tackle it.

Although the situation in West Lothian had "got out of hand", Mr McKenzie added: "An incident like this one should not lead to somebody's professional reputation being destroyed."

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council saw no evidence to back up claims that pupils were behaving more aggressively. "The teacher is the adult in the room and is therefore responsible for managing behaviour," said executive director Eileen Prior, who did not comment on the case in West Lothian.

She added: "Establishing a climate of mutual respect in a classroom is probably the most important thing a teacher does, because that leads to a shared sense of purpose and allows learning to take place."

Mr Watson, whose lawyer highlighted an "impeccable" prior record, acknowledged that he had fallen below expected standards. He acted in "self-preservation" - having felt pressure building, "compromised" breathing and pins and needles in his face - but said he was in control and did not hurt the boy. There had been no time to send for help as the nearest teacher was 40m away. Mr Watson has worked successfully in three other schools since the incident and is now in a permanent post.

West Lothian head of education Elaine Cook said that in line the authority's disciplinary process, a final written warning was appropriate. Mr Watson was a trusted and excellent teacher, she added, and the incident was out of character.

The decision to permit free time was "poor professional judgement", Mr Watson accepted. But he had "demonstrated an understanding of how a lack of structure and informality can lead to misbehaviour on the part of pupils and undesirable situations developing", the GTCS panel found.

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