Enemy at the gates

12th August 2005 at 01:00
A parent threatens to knock out a headteacher. A criminal offence, surely. Apparently not...

I was threatened last term. Not by a pupil, but by a parent. In fact, the children couldn't have been better behaved that afternoon. It was the last day before half-term and the children had had a lovely time in the hall watching an amateur version of Pop Idol (without the pain). The highlight was a Year 1 girl with cerebral palsy singing "Twinkle Twinkle little Star". Her carer had cried. I was reliving the performance in my head when I heard the noise outside my office. "Where is he?" someone was screaming.

I went to the door and saw two parents who tend to conform to the EastEnders code of negotiation. Does art imitate life or vice versa? The latter in this case: a loud woman and a 6ft 2in man, muscular, in a baggy singlet.

"He's done it again, he's hit my son! What you gonna do?" she shouts.

"He's hit mine as well," shouts the man. "What you gonna do, come on, what you gonna do?"

"I've just got in," I reply. "I've been at a meeting, I'm not aware of any problem."

"My son has been hit again. I'm takin' him out of here, I'm not 'avin it," says the man. My mind flashes back over the past few weeks. I can't remember an incident involving his boy. These two are very angry. I've seen them standing outside the school gates practising giving their anger a form, justifying their belligerence. I don't know who they are accusing and I feel isolated. All the children have gone home; there is no one to question.

"If that's what you want to do, then it's up to you," I reply. "He couldn't give a shit," the man shouts as he walks away from my office. The woman walks with him agreeing loudly. "All they care about is the bad ones." I walk after them. "This is a school," I point out. "You do not behave like this." I ask the man to leave the site.

"Fuck off!" he shouts. "What are you going to do, ban me?" He walks towards me spitting his words. "I'll knock you out."

I'm 56 years old. I used to play a lot of contact sport and I'm not used to feeling afraid. To my shame, this man is scaring me.

"I'll get this school closed," he says. He rushes back into the school with the woman. I ask my secretary to phone the police as my Senco emerges from her office. They have harangued her and I feel ashamed that I haven't protected her. Twenty minutes later two WPCs arrive. The parents have gone, telling me they are "going down the education".

I tell the policewomen what has happened and say that I want to press charges. Not just for me but for everyone who works in public services who is abused in this way. They say that all they can do is give him a warning.

"Don't you think that you would have felt like that if your child was hit?"

says one. I refute this. "Ah, but you're a headteacher," she replies. She is legitimising aggressive behaviour.

I telephone a colleague who is a magistrate. He's sure that the police have the powers to arrest. I go to his house where he prints off legal guidance for me.

I speak to a local police inspector, explaining why I think the WPCs may have got it wrong. He is polite but refuses to accept that they have made a mistake. I express my concerns about the aggressive parent getting away with a warning when he should be going to court. I'm a teacher; I know how bad learning encourages more outrageous behaviour. The inspector tells me that the Crown Prosecution Service is unlikely to accept the officers returning to charge him, having already given him a warning. He says he will speak to the WPCs and get back to me. He phones at 10pm to tell me that the warning will stand. I write to the chief superintendent expressing my concerns and posing several obvious questions. Three months later, I've still have had no reply. I have written to the two abusive parents banning them from the school site.

In the interim, the man has been badgering parents and staff at the gates to get them to sign a petition claiming rampant bullying is taking place in our school. I've been told that some feel intimidated by him. One teaching assistant had to be escorted through the gates because she is afraid. My staff are outraged.

I contact my education authority. The legal department write to the man, reminding him of the ban and warning him that if the activity at the gates does not stop immediately they will serve an injunction for which he will have to pay. They are also disappointed with the police and will be arranging a meeting with them to which I will be invited. Apparently there have been other incidents like this, in which the police have failed to prosecute.

I know that I am not a special case. Public sector workers do get abused, but there is supposed to be zero tolerance of this kind of behaviour; not in my authority. The police warning had little effect, as the parent was back after half-term intimidating people at the school gate. But since the intervention of the education authority, he's stopped.

The writer, who is the head of a primary in the south of England, wants to remain anonymous

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