West Dunbartonshire union says targets to cut exclusion leave teachers facing incidents they cannot handle. Neil Munro and John Cairney report.
TEACHERS IN West Dunbartonshire are to get their own welfare officer and will be offered courses in "therapeutic crisis intervention" to help them deal with violent pupils. The unprecedented moves are in response to what union leaders claim is an increasingly threatening atmosphere as schools struggle to meet Government targets on absenteeism and exclusion.
In the week before the annual "truancy tables" are issued by the Scottish Executive, teachers are warning that Government targets to reduce absenteeism and exclusions put them under growing pressure.
West Dunbartonshire has acknowledged the grievance by setting up a working party to look at violence in schools, following allegations by teachers' leaders that staff are being ordered to sweep serious incidents under the carpet.
The Educational Institute of Scotland claims the situation is exacerbated by the introduction of targets. Glenise Borthwick, the local convener, says there has been an "identifiable upturn" in incidents of verbal abuse. Staff suggest these are linked to the exclusion targets schools have been given.
The Government expects school exclusions to be cut by a third by 2002. It has also set targets for pupil absences, which for the last five years have averaged four school weeks a year for each secondary pupil, and two weeks for each primary pupil. The Scottish Executive wants these figures reduced by around a week over the next three years. It has provided pound;26 million during this period to help schools develop alternatives to exclusion.
The EIS in West Dunbartonshire pressed for action in October as a result of a number of incidents at Braidfield High in Clydebank and at Kilpatrick school for children with moderate and severe learning difficulties. A pupil from Clydebank High is awaiting trial for an alleged assault on a teacher in June.
The union claims that a teacher has been assaulted by pupils on three separate occasions at Braidfield, ironically one of the pilots intended to showcase the Government's new community schools. At Kilpatrick there have been 39 violent incidents since August. This equals the figures for all special schools during the whole of last session. The union says the situation is so serious that supply staff refuse to go to the school.
In the first four months of this session there were also two violent incidents against staff in West Dunbartonshire primary schools where there were five last year. Two incidents involving secondary staff compare with six in 1998-99.
The Government acted two years ago by asking education authorities to monitor violence against staff by pupils in all three sectors. The first set of figures, published in February, showed there were 743 incidents during 1997-98, two-thirds of them involving teachers. But several authorities could not supply information and officials warned there could be under-reporting.
Ms Borthwick said: "Teachers are conscious of a blame culture in schools which results in staff being made to feel that it is their fault when incidents occur. We were also concerned that there was no access to information on the number of serious assaults, both verbal and physical, and that the authority had no policy on violence towards teachers. It is a health and safety issue."
Bob Cook, one of West Dunbartonshire's senior education managers, agreed there were problems in schools, but said they were no greater than in other parts of Scotland: "We recognise that violence is around. Every incident is logged and catalogued and we are doing our best to provide a duty of care towards teachers."
The working party is likely to include psychologists and headteachers as well as union representatives. It will be asked to come up with ways of dealing with the escalation of potentially violent incidents. Mr Cook also promised conflict management training and other means of supporting teachers. The therapeutic courses would help both pupils and teachers, he said.
Exclusion targets are also a bone of contention in Glasgow, where the EIS objects to all 29 secondaries having the same targets, even though five will not get the Government's extra funding for another two years.
Willie Hart, the Glasgow EIS secretary, welcomed the education department's willingness to discuss the targets, but said equality of funding is a fundamental issue. "At the very least, the five schools not yet receiving the extra money should be brought on stream next year rather than the year after," Mr Hart said.
The council is receiving pound;488,000 this year in the first pound;5 million pay-out from the specific fund for developing alternatives to exclusion. George Gardner, Glasgow's depute director of education, said he recognised that differential funding for schools was an issue and that the targets would take account of each school's individual circumstances.