Punchbag - Is this how you feel every day you go to work?

25th January 2008 at 00:00
Being a victim of violence at school can demoralise, demotivate and devastate. Proper management is crucial to save careers. Fiona Leney investigates.

Judith was assaulted by a gang of pupils in the school locker rooms. She had her head banged against a wall while her attackers hurled a stream of abuse at her. This didn't happen at some tough inner-city secondary, but at a selective school in Surrey.

"I've been a teacher for 25 years and I loved my job. But I'm never going back. Nowadays children - from whatever background - feel confident that they can do what they like. We are disempowered," she says.

Judith is typical of teachers who have suffered either verbal or physical aggression and believe that new legal protection is doing nothing to lessen violence against them.

Indeed, the Teacher Support Network (TSN), the charity that supports staff in the education sector, has recorded a steady rise in the number of violence-related calls and emails to its advisers in recent months.

During the summer term, 67 calls or emails about pupil violence were made to TSN counsellors - a third more than during the same period a year ago.

This followed a survey of 433 teachers published by the charity last February that showed that nearly all had been verbally - and half of them physically - abused. Four said they had been assaulted with knives, three with guns. Others had been stabbed, strangled or, in one case, attacked with a fire extinguisher.

A similar survey in 2005 showed that only one in five had been physically abused - and none threatened with guns. While verbal aggression is far more common than physical assault, its effect over time is as damaging.

Judith says that even before the attack, she took to running to and from school rather than getting the bus, to avoid the gang of girls. "I even stopped going to the local shops, because every time I ran into them they'd start swearing at me," she says.

The Education and Inspection Act 2006 says that schools must have a clear behavioural code, which is communicated to parents and children as well as staff, and it gives teachers the right to use "reasonable force" in defence of themselves or others.

But most of the teachers surveyed in February said that even if their school did have a behavioural code, it was not properly enforced.

Judith says the right to use self-defence becomes irrelevant if senior management are not prepared to support their staff. "The head of department refused to take action over the incident and the head said we couldn't afford to upset the parents," says Judith. "I had to grit my teeth and continue going in - you can't take time off because it shows you're weak."

Richard Bird, the legal adviser for the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees that protecting teachers is the school leaders' responsibility. "Every school should have a policy on physical intervention and provide discussion and training on how to defuse situations," he says.

But where violence is unavoidable, he says, teachers should be made to feel more confident about using "reasonable force".

"There is a subjective element. So even if a child is hurt, as long as you can show you acted to defend yourself or someone else and genuinely believed you were using only reasonable force, you are OK," he says, although having to justify one's actions in court is not a prospect any teacher will relish. "Ultimately, if the parents want to take a complaint against a teacher further than the school, it's for the police to decide and we are concerned that some police officers have been too hostile to teachers in these situations," he says.

This was certainly the case for Ian, a primary headteacher in Wales, who says he was made to feel like a criminal by police who arrested him after one of his pupils claimed he had hurt him during a confrontation.

"I was interviewed under caution at the local police station. After investigation, it was decided that there were no grounds for any future action by the police.

"At no stage was it said I did not do what the child accused me of, and I'm sure it remains on file somewhere that the allegation, albeit a malicious one, was made," he says. "The arrest was traumatic for me, but more importantly, for my family. The investigation process was extremely stressful."

The psychological damage caused by violence or malicious accusations can include difficulty in sleeping and concentrating, stomach upsets, headaches and tenseness, says Tom Lewis, a TSN counsellor.

Typically, Tom says, victims of aggression talk of feeling vulnerable in school, "walking on eggshells" and the "anticipatory anxiety" they feel before entering class.

Tom has counselled many teachers in this situation, and says that this may often be the first time they've felt able to talk about the event. "We try to help them find strategies to counter negative thinking, replacing it with more realistic and positive alternatives," he says.

Practical issues would include how they might access support or even utilise the support that has been offered by their SMT, colleagues and union.

Although male teachers are usually less vulnerable than women - figures for both verbal and physical abuse show that women bear the brunt - Tom says that an attack can undermine a male teacher's sense of masculinity. Rory, a 30-year-old primary teacher, says he still feels humiliated by what happened to him last year. "The kid was extremely confrontational and quickly worked out that, in effect, the teacher's hands where tied," he says.

In a series of assaults over the course of months, Rory was kicked, punched, spat at and had glue and paint thrown over his clothes. Requests for intervention were met with little sympathy from the headteacher.

"He said he couldn't believe that a big bloke like me could be intimidated by a child with emotional problems. It seemed that it was acceptable for a child to abuse an adult because he had problems."

Rory resigned and has just returned to teaching in a different school, after taking time out to recover. "I'm a six-foot bloke and yet I felt intimidated and lost my confidence. I'm only just coming to terms with that," he says.

Rory's feelings of humiliation are shared by many teachers who have faced violence. None of those who spoke to The TES for this article wanted to be named, and the TSN says that it is impossible to break assault figures down into regions, because callers are often reluctant to divulge any identifying details.

More than a third of teachers in the TSN's February survey had been forced out of school to recover from injuries and Tom says there is no magic formula for getting yourself back into the classroom.

"Although returning to school as soon as possible is the aim, conditions must be right - from the individual's self perception to the support they are being offered," he says.

Sometimes, a teacher's confidence will be so affected that they begin to question whether they can teach at all.

"You go into this profession to help people, and you think 'how can they do this to me?'" says Judith. "I am very bitter because I've been forced out of a job I loved".Names have been changed to protect privacy.

If you are the victim of verbal or physical violence

- Try to involve a member of the senior management team as soon as you can - if possible before the incident escalates, but otherwise immediately afterwards. Make it clear that you expect their support and the matter to be dealt with according to the school's behavioural policy.

- Colleagues can be good sources of support. They may have experience of trouble with a particular child or children, which may be helpful supporting evidence if the issue is taken further.

- Consult your union for advice and possible legal support.

- The Teacher Support Network freephone numbers are 08000 562 561 (England) 08000 855 088 (Wales).

- Leap Confronting Conflict is a youth charity committed to tackling violence in schools. It runs training programmes for school staff and whole-school conflict resolution courses.

Violence - know your rights

The Education and Inspection Act 2006, section 7, states that:

- A member of staff may use "such force as is reasonable in the circumstances" to stop a pupil committing any offence, or causing personal injury to, or damage to the property of, anyone else (or to himself). You may use any force that you consider reasonable, even if, in retrospect, it is considered that you over-reacted. The important thing is that you can show you acted in good faith. Using force as a punishment is not acceptable.

- "Reasonable force" may also be used to prevent a pupil "prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline at the school". Lawyers say this gives teachers the right to physically move a child or hold them back.

- For further guidance, look at explanatory notes to the Act, produced by the DCSF. Visit www.opsi.gov.ukACTSen20062006en40.htm.

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