'I didn't run away...

13th July 2001 at 01:00
....I didn't concede to them. I didn't lose control. I am proud of that'. Headteachers like Sylvia Moore believe school staff need much greater protection from abusive and aggressive parents. The forthcoming Education Bill could lay down new ground rules, depending on the outcome of a consultation exercise launched by Estelle Morris this week. In the meantime, Mrs Moore has bounced back from her own violent ordeal and here tells Wendy Berliner how she refused to be beaten by the bullies

Sylvia Moore sits surrounded by her support staff in a sunny room at Francis Combe school in Watford. She's explaining the details of building work for a pound;4 million extension which will start shortly after school breaks up for the summer. The school is on an up. She is buoyant, happy and looking to the future.

It is a good end to a year that began horrifically last September when she was imprisoned in her own office by a pair of marauding parents, incensed that she had refused to allow their 11-year-old daughter to wear a nose stud to school. For several minutes, while the girl looked on smiling, Sylvia Moore was physically and verbally abused by the parents, and escaped only after three male members of staff forced their way into her office and the police were called.

In May, the parents, Diane and John Bell, were jailed for nine months after being found guilty of false imprisonment. Three of the Bells' five children were at Francis Combe at the time of the attack, but none attended in the immediate aftermath. Under current law, the school had no powers to exclude Maxine - or her two elder siblings - for the behaviour of their parents, an issue that the Education and Skills Secretary, Estelle Morris, seems unlikely to budge on. In a statement this week foreshadowing the new Education Bill, she said that "the innocent child should not be excluded for the misbehaviour of the parent". However, she did launch a consultation programme on how the Government and LEAs can support schools. In addition, she proposed mandatory admissions forums to ensure that excluded children are accepted speedily by other schools.

Mrs Moore would have had to take Maxine back if the Bells had insisted, and at one point they did. But following talks with Hertfordshire LEA, all three were transferred to another school. The 11-year-old is understood no longer to wear her nose stud to school.

Sitting in Sylvia Moore's office, it is difficult to imagine the violent scene that took place here. The room is homely, with comfortable armchairs upholstered in a restful turquoise. Family photos sit on cupboard tops.

Mrs Moore, a diminutive 5ft 2in in kitten heels, ankle bracelet and polished nails, is smiling. Her blonde hair is swept up and she is dressed and made up to modern perfection. She has changed nothing in the room since the attack. She doesn't need to, she says, because the bad things that happened here are outweighed by the good.

Sylvia Moore has been teaching for 30 years and has been head at Francis Combe, an 800-pupil mixed comprehensive, for the past eight. She is no stranger to having to calm aggressive parents. "No one gets to be a headteacher without having to deal with irate parents, and I had strategies for doing that," she says. "This time they didn't work."

Watford is a partially selective authority and the intake at Francis Combe is skewed towards the lower ability levels. Eighty per cent of the children are described as having special needs and 13 per cent have statements. The area is not particularly poor - only 25 per cent are on free school meals - but the brightest are stripped out. The Bell family had given problems in the past. The children were "a bit naughty", as Mrs Moore puts it; they skipped homework and school. Mrs Bell had been banned from the school premises the previous school year for racially abusing an Asian teacher who had objected to her walking into his class unannounced and removing her son. But nothing could have prepared Sylvia Moore for that day last September.

The trouble started on the first day of the autumn term, September 7. At lunch Mrs Moore spotted Maxine Bell - a new Year 7 pupil - wearing a nose stud. School rules allow a tiny ear stud or ring to be worn, but forbid facial jewellery. The rules, designed to prevent children being hurt during play or PE, are clearly stated in a letter sent to all parents of new pupils. "They already had children here. They knew the rules," says Mrs Moore. Pupils do push the restrictions, but not usually on their first day.

Mrs Moore carries small envelopes around with her, and if she catches someone wearing facial jewellery or earrings that are too big she asks them to hand over the offending items. She puts the jewellery in an envelope, writes the pupil's name on it and places it in the school safe. The pupil can reclaim the package on the Friday of the following week. "Ninety nine point nine per cent of the time the pupil will say, 'Oh sorry. I forgot to take it out', and hand it over. Maxine didn't. She told me that only her mum could tell her to take it out."

Still, it was Maxine's first day so Mrs Moore decided not to come down too heavily. She gave the girl the lunch break to think it over, but warned her that if the stud wasn't out by the end of lunch she would have to work in the isolation room. She asked Maxine to come to her office at the end of break, and when the girl arrived she still had the nose stud in. She was placed in isolation and went home with a letter to her parents that restated the school rules about jewellery and offered an appointment to discuss the issue.

The following day Maxine turned up again with her nose stud. Mrs Moore says: "When I asked her why she was still wearing it, she said, 'My mum has told me not to take it out'." Maxine was sent to isolation and later her mother turned up and was seen by the head of student services, Sue Braham - "a tough cookie", says the head - who was left shaken by the verbal abuse from Mrs Bell.

The weekend intervened but on Monday Maxine came back, still wearing her stud, and was put in isolation again. She had a mobile phone and the school believes she was keeping her mother informed of developments. A short while later, Mrs Bell arrived at the school unannounced and harangued reception staff so badly that they called the police. Mrs Moore contacted the local authority solicitor and Mrs Bell was banned from the site.

Mrs Moore offered the Bells a meeting off-site to discuss the issue but it never took place. Mrs Bell came back unannounced just after assembly on September 12 - five days into the new term - this time with her husband and with disastrous consequences for all concerned (see box). The resulting verbal and physical attack left Mrs Moore in floods of tears, with sore ear lobes - where they had pulled at her earrings - and with a whiplash injury to her neck from snapping her head out of Mr Bell's way. But she took no time off. She believed it was important for staff and pupils to see that she was not intimidated. "I had so much personal support from my staff and I had so many lovely cards," she says. "Even the little children stopped me in the corridor and asked, 'Are you okay?' This is a superb school and I do love my job."

The incident shocked the school, and staff remain very protective of her. Magnetic locks were installed on all the entrances to the school during the Easter break, paid for by the local authority; side entrances are now locked during lesson times.

Sylvia Moore has changed some of her practices too. "I no longer see parents alone, and I will not see an aggressive parent at all," she says. She believes the law needs to be changed so that heads can apply for the managed removal of pupils whose parents have acted aggressively towards teaching staff. "If the home-school relationship is not right, the environment for learning is not right," she says. "As the law stands, I would have had to take them back. Yet there was no way I could work with that family again."It remains to be seen how much notice Estelle Morris takes of heads such as Sylvia Moore in her consultation exercise. "There should be a procedure which, in the best interest of the children's education, can move them from one school to another," says Mrs Moore.

Given the ferocity of the attack, she appears remarkably unscathed. She says the court case and subsequent jail sentences, harrowing though it was to give evidence and relive her ordeal, enabled her to close the chapter in her mind. "I can't afford to be emotional about it when I have a school to run. It's over. It's gone," she says. She has no flashbacks or nightmares. She has never questioned her commitment to teaching. "I am not saying I have never considered going off to head some lovely little school in Dorset. I looked at the ads in The TES - my partner even cut some out for me. But when I go around this school I know how needy some of these children are; I'm not leaving them."

Why does she think she has recovered so well from an ordeal that would have sent some despairing into early retirement? She pays tribute to her colleagues, whose unwavering support has helped her recover, but then she mentions another reason. "I didn't run away from the Bells and lock myself in my office loo. I didn't concede to them. I never lost control. It's the one thing I am proud of because I am a bit of a wimp."

A wimp she isn't. As she walks round the school, she is buttonholed by a determined woman (who happens to be wearing a diamante nose stud). The woman is the grandmother of a pupil and intent on reclaiming large earrings confiscated by Mrs Moore. She wants to talk about it, and she wants to talk about it now. Mrs Moore tells the woman she can't talk now because she is doing something else; diamante woman will have to wait. "I'll wait as long as it takes," she says but accepts the verdict and sits down. Mrs Moore goes to the office and gets someone else to talk to the woman.

The echoes of the past would be deafening to someone who had not moved on. But, to Mrs Moore, the future beckons. The phone rings. Preparations have to be made for the turf-cutting ceremony to mark the beginning of work on the new extension. She's on to it.


Just after 9am one Tuesday in the opening days of last autumn term, Sylvia Moore was showing a child out of her office when the door banged open. She was confronted with the parents of 11-year-old Maxine Bell, a new girl who was breaking school rules by wearing a nose stud to school. What follows led to the Bells being jailed for nine months in May.

"Mr and Mrs Bell barged their way in with Maxine. Mrs Bell is small but heavy and she shut the door and leaned on it to prevent anyone else coming in. No one knew they were here. They had avoided reception and had come in through a side entrance.

"They were both very agitated. The mother was yelling and the father was pacing around me, pushing his face right into mine. They were saying that I had been bullying their daughter and that they had come to sort me out. They were going to give me a taste of what it was like to be bullied.

"I have dealt with aggressive parents before so I suggested we sit down and talk things through, and I offered them a coffee. They said they didn't want a coffee, that they were not going to sit down and that I wasn't sitting down either. I started to feel uncomfortable.

"I suggested we fetch the deputy head responsible for Maxine's year group to discuss things and I reached for the door to try to leave but Mrs Bell shoulder-barged me away. They told me I wasn't going anywhere - that I was not leaving the room until we had sorted this out; I started to feel frightened.

"Mr Bell was towering above me and he kept jabbing me in the shoulder with hisfinger and pushing his face right into mine so I had to snap my head back; I thought he was going to headbutt me and break my glasses. He had completely lost it; it was just a torrent of personal abuse. My face and glasses were covered with his spit; I could smell his breath he was so close.

"I started to think 'Has he got a knife? Is he winding himself up to stab me?' I was shaking. I felt so frightened and threatened. They wouldn't let me say anything and they wouldn't let me go. Maxine just stood there and smirked.

"I always wear jewellery and they said that if Maxine couldn't wear jewellery then neither could I. I have pierced ears and was wearing earrings. Mr Bell grabbed my earlobes as though he was trying to drag the earring out; I thought the lobes would split. Mrs Bell slapped me on the arms, saying that I should take my jewellery off.

"I thought about bolting for the bathroom and locking myself in but I didn't run away; I never conceded to them. They started being sarcastic and suggesting I phone my 'friends' the police; I picked up the phone and rang reception and said 'I need help, now'.

"Three of the men from premises staff came and banged on the door. Mrs Bell tried to stop them coming in but they pushed the door open. I was rushed into my secretary's room and they were still shouting that they were going to get me. I saw the police running though the site within minutes and they were arrested. I was in floods of tears all day. But I stayed."

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