Heads are now having to tackle a growing menace in schools: parental abuse against teachers. Anat Arkin reports
A new name for an old phenomenon has emerged. It's called school rage. It manifests itself among parents of a certain type - probably those who themselves hated school - when their children come into conflict with teachers.
The problem is worrying education officials so much that some authorities are paying to train staff on how to defuse such situations.
Of the seven heads who took part in a course in Birmingham recently, only one had ever been physically assaulted. But they had all lost count of the times they had been verbally abused by parents or other adults visiting their schools. And they agreed that the problem was getting worse.
"We carry out a straw poll on every programme and we always get a similar result," says Kevin Boles, a director of Chase, the firm of security consultants running the course.
Explanations for the increase in school rage vary. Kevin Boles argues that people now have more rights than they used to, and are prepared to stand up for them - aggressively if need be. Some of the heads in Birmingham thought people were using anger deliberately because they had seen others getting a response from such behaviour.
As one head put it: "The people who come into school to have a go at us have a perception that they have a complaint and that the only way to get anywhere is to kick up a fuss."
Disturbing as it may be to be abused, the problem is often under-reported: teachers and school support staff often accept it as just part of their job. But the law recognises that nobody should have to put up with threats and abuse at work. Employers, including school bosses, have a legal duty to ensure as far as possible, the health, safety and welfare of their employees.
They are obliged by law to take steps to combat and reduce foreseeable risks to employees, including the risk of violence, which the Health and Safety Executive defines not only as physical force but as "any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work".
Every headteacher in Birmingham has been invited to attend one of these half day sessions, which are intended to help them provide similar training for their own staff. There is also a training programme for school governors and caretakers, while separate courses for secretaries include advice on dealing with angry and abusive telephone callers.
The idea is to supplement the physical security measures that schools in Birmingham, as elsewhere, introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre and other attacks on schools. Electronic doors and surveillance systems may keep unwelcome intruders out, but they can offer no protection from violence committed by parents and others with legitimate reasons for visiting a school.
Frank Sparkes points out that in Birmingham, legitimate visitors are responsible for 197 out of every 200 incidents of violence and abuse. "We felt that, yes, we needed to put in the hardware to stop people from breaking into schools and causing damage or other problems," he says. "But we also felt that we needed to put in place policies and procedures in schools to deal with difficult people and difficult situations."
Trainers remind heads of their responsibility under school safety regulations for assessing risks, reviewing security and safety arrangements, and making sure staff know what they should do if they are threatened.
The course helps staff consider how to identify signs of anger or aggression and how to resolve difficult situations before they get out of hand. Trainers advise participants to stay at least four to six feet away from angry visitors, adopt friendly, non-threatening gestures and take control of the situation by asking open questions of the "who, what, why, where, when and how" variety.
They also stress the importance of taking notes, both to show visitors that someone is listening to their complaints and to make sure there is a record of incidents.
Much of this is pretty obvious. It would be surprising if anyone who had become a headteacher did not know that angry people tend to shout and become red in the face. What does seem useful is the opportunity participants are given to discuss the problem of verbal abuse with colleagues from other schools.
David Barrow is health and safety officer for the education department in Derby, where 100 of the city's 105 headteachers and education centre managers went through the pilot training scheme last year. "One of the biggest difficulties," he says, "is getting teachers to own up and admit there is a problem, because they see it as a personal failing."
The Chase course may help victims of verbal abuse appreciate that it is not their fault nor part of the job but a safety issue that schools can and should do something about.
Chase can be contacted on 01246 823400
* Identify dangers in your interview area. Loose objects (scissors, fire extinguishers, paperweights, etc) are potential weapons.
* Watch out for danger signals, such as lips tightening over teeth.
* Respond with a relaxed posture, friendly gestures and other calming signals.
* Keep a gap of four to six feet between yourself and the visitor. This will give you time to react to a threat of physical violence.
* Listen to the visitor's complaint and, if possible, take notes.
* Above all, keep calm as your behaviour will affect the visitor's.