There is legal precedent for punching a pupil in the face if the situation requires it. We would generally advise against it as classroom practice - indeed against any form of violence.
But in 1972 a Birmingham teacher was acquitted for breaking a boy's jaw because of the risk he posed to himself and the class. The court heard that the boy had taken half an LSD tab, screamed obscenities and kicked the teacher. Mr Justice Ackner said: "Have we really reached the stage in this country when an insolent and bolshie pupil has to be treated with all the courtesies of visiting royalty? The law does not require a teacher to have the patience of a saint."
Since then, teachers have continued to show saintly patience, even though their rights to intervene physically have grown. Those powers were enhanced by the Education and Inspections Act four years ago. It set out four situations where teachers can use reasonable force: if pupils are committing an offence, damaging property, causing personal injury to themselves or others, or prejudicing good order and discipline in the school.
So what to make of Michael Gove's announcement this week that he will scrap the "no contact rule", which he believes is stopping teachers breaking up fights? It struck education lawyers as odd that the Education Secretary wanted to abolish a rule that should not exist. It seemed, as one London councillor said, like announcing an "end to the rule that all teachers should wear clown shoes". The oddness was compounded by Mr Gove's decision to tell the Conservative party conference (page 14) that he would give teachers disciplinary powers beyond the school gates - powers teachers also have already, not just from legislation four years ago, but from common law going back decades.
Yet on the no-contact "rule", Mr Gove has a point. Most schools are reasonable and realise there is nothing wrong with giving a crying reception pupil a hug after they've fallen in the playground. But some continue to outlaw all physical contact. This can be because their senior managers are overly cautious (the ones who insist staff say "thought-shower" not "brainstorm" out of daft fear that it will upset epileptic pupils). Or perhaps because they have noticed something worrying: since the 2006 powers came in, the number of teachers investigated by police or local authorities after attempting to restrain pupils appears, if anything, to have gone up.
School staff may have the powers, but no one seems to have told the police, magistrates or the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr Gove has not announced anything new, but he will help the profession if he changes the public perception, and even more if he has words with his colleagues in the Home Office. Teachers do not want licence to break pupils' jaws, but an end to the "touch my arm and I'll report you" culture is overdue.
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