'It's getting scarier'

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Punching, kicking, death threats and flying furniture: no it's not a drunken brawl but rather reported incidents at schools. Raymond Ross talks to teachers and union leaders about the increase in aggressive behaviour

Pupils who pose a threat to school staff should not be in mainstream schools, say teachers and headteachers after a Scottish Executive survey revealed that reports of abusive behaviour in schools tripled over the past three years.

George Ross, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, says: "Our view is that young people who pose a threat should not be in our mainstream schools and if a teacher is assaulted by a pupil, that pupil should not return to that school. And anyone with a pattern of threatening or violent behaviour should not be transferred to another mainstream school."

Scottish Executive figures released at the end of last month show the number of reported incidents of violence and anti-social behaviour rose from 1,898 in 1998-99 to 5,412 in 2001-02. Almost half the incidents - 44 per cent - involved physical violence; 26 per cent were physical and verbal abuse cases and 29 per cent involved verbal abuse only.

Although the increase was partly due to better reporting systems and a greater willingness by staff to report incidents, neither unions nor individual teachers believe that this can fully account for the extent of the rise. Much of it, they say, is down to Government policies of social inclusion.

"It is not acceptable to continue to say that the whole increase reflects a bedding in of statistics," says David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. "The reality is that more and more of the extent of the problems of violence in schools is being revealed through these figures."

Some union leaders still believe incidents are under-reported. Willie Hart, Glasgow secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, says: "There are teachers who give up reporting formally because nothing happens. So they don't see the point.

"There's a feeling in mainstream schools that senior management could be more rigorous in dealing with incidents. There was a case recently, for example, where a teacher reported being punched by a child but the school would not formally suspend the child."

While classroom teachers sometimes feel they do not get the support they need from senior management, managers sometimes feel they don't get adequate support from the local authority.

One experienced secondary teacher of a core subject, who deals with pupils across the whole spectrum, says: "I've had things thrown at me, from pencils to balls of icy slush (in the playground). I've seen a chair fly across the classroom, aimed by one boy at another, ending up embedded in the wall.

"I won't walk through school after the last bell until it's empty of pupils. I wouldn't walk the neighbouring streets after school and I would never live in the catchment area.

"A member of management was assaulted but the boy only got five days'

suspension, the maximum.

"Our hands are tied. It's getting scarier."

Her school has an exclusion room but a lot of pupils refuse to go to it.

"They'll just throw the form back at you.

"I had one pupil who ran out of the exclusion room and back to the class five times in one hour in order, simply, to disrupt the class.

"It's crisis management. We're reeling from crisis to crisis."

One cause of the rise in aggression and violence against staff has been social inclusion, she believes. "We have kids who quite simply should not be in mainstream schools. We have had no professional development to help us cope with social inclusion."

Last year, most reported incidents - 37 per cent - occurred in primary schools. (Thirty per cent happened in secondary schools, 32 per cent in special schools and the remainder in nurseries.) This fact cannot be divorced from the Government's social inclusion policy, says Mr Hart, who lately has been having more contact with school managers and class teachers over incidents involving acutely challenging children.

"Social inclusion has added to the problem, with schools having to accommodate extremely challenging pupils and accommodate them for longer without enough staff or resources," he says.

"An unmanageable five-or six-year-old can be extremely disturbing to work with."

Kay Hall, president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, the primary heads' union and headteacher of West Kilbride Primary in North Ayrshire, agrees but adds that most violent behaviour in primaries is not directed at teachers.

"It's an ongoing problem with social inclusion children who have behavioural difficulties. We are trying to keep them in mainstream. But most violent behaviour in primaries is not aimed directly at the teacher.

It's more about the child's needs and wants.

"They can lash out at objects and sometimes other children. The teacher has to intervene to contain this behaviour and this is how they might get hurt."

Another primary headteacher agrees, saying she has never seen a child attack a teacher. "A child with emotional and behavioural difficulties may display violent behaviour - upsetting tables, throwing chairs around - but this is rarely aimed at anyone in particular," she says.

"When a child has to be extracted from class against its will, it often kicks out, but again it's rarely aimed at the people or person trying to remove them. I've been hurt but not deliberately."

There seems to be, though, a general sense that aggression among primary children is on the increase and this message is coming through from the parents.

"Children are more aggressive to one another and to their parents - both verbally and physically - and this compromises the management of children," says one primary headteacher.

"A lot of mothers say they are afraid to discipline their children because they fear a violent reaction. Certainly, there's more aggression both around and within the school than there used to be."

Pupils are also more inclined to be verbally aggressive towards support staff, whom they perceive as being of lesser status, she says.

For some years now, the "big problem", Mr Hart says, has been in special needs establishments, where an acceptance that violence goes with the territory has developed. He quotes instances of one teacher who suffered a broken wrist and another who had severe bruising on her legs from continuous kicking.

One special educational needs teacher in charge of a special unit says: "In our unit we've had serious assaults, such as a sharpened pencil pushed into an artery. Kicking at your legs is pretty common. I've had a desk thrown at me and I've had to snatch a powerful air pistol off a girl who was threatening to use it against another student. She was charged.

"The police are marvellous but I wouldn't say we always felt supported by the local authority."

Another special educational needs teacher has seen teachers and classroom assistants pushed and punched, although it has never happened to him.

"Generally, SEN teachers are fairly skilled at de-escalation and usually the kids are acting out internal problems," he says.

"You do get constant psychological battering, which is a form of violence.

Some teachers are brow-beaten and disillusioned.

"We get a lot of verbals. You get 'F*** off!' all the time. I've even had 'F*** off, sir!' " However, he says he has seen more potential violence and experienced more confrontation in 10 years in the mainstream than in the five years he has been in special needs, possibly because they work with small groups.

Mr Eaglesham, of the SSTA, says: "The trend in the statistics on violence in schools correlates at a high level with reports of increased violence against colleagues in the health services, emergency services and other areas of public service.

"It is clear that society as a whole has become more aggressive in many ways, including road and air rage, and that schools are not exempt from this.

"While the measures currently being undertaken by the Scottish Executive and local authorities may help to abate the increase in incidents of violence, what is now needed is a much broader approach to the underlying problems in society through which violence against public servants becomes as unacceptable as drink driving or domestic abuse."

If the increase in aggression is societal, it is not surprising that parents can be a source of extreme concern to school staff.

"Teachers and senior management find themselves speaking to parents who are under the influence of drugs. It does temper the conversation, with school staff very conscious of the need not to inflame the unstable situation," says one primary headteacher with 20 years' experience.

"We regularly find ourselves talking to parents who are expressing themselves aggressively. A parent said to me last year: 'I know where you live'. He had a prison record for theft and violence.

"In the past two years we have been involved in court proceedings against two other parents, again both with criminal records. One stole money from the school office. The other burst into a classroom, pushed past the teacher and verbally abused and threatened a pupil as he sat at his desk.

"The police were called. While we waited, the woman demanded to see me. She was with several members of her extended family. Conversation was hopeless, so I waited in my room and left them outside in the corridor until, 30 minutes later, the police came.

"When the police eventually managed to move them, they sat in a car at the school gate. The police were powerless and left. Staff felt too intimidated to leave the building.

"In the past year we have called the police twice because parents have been fighting at the school gate in front of pupils. The police could only warn them. They cannot be prosecuted for being on the pavement by the gate."

When the Education Minister, Cathy Jamieson, announced the figures for violence and anti-social behaviour, she said teachers had a right to do their job without fear of physical and verbal abuse and that the Scottish Executive would spend pound;10 million a year to improve behaviour through such measures as additional supervision staff for break times, more pupil support bases and home-school link workers.

However, Mr Eaglesham is not alone in thinking that more fundamental questions need to be addressed and that the Executive and local authorities have to face up to the issues.

"We need to find another kind of provision for these pupils (who pose a threat)," says Mr Ross, of the HAS. "Schools should be safe places for both those who work and those who learn there."

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