Teachers report surge in parental aggression

28th August 2015 at 01:00
Primary staff are the most vulnerable, suggests YouGovTES poll

Three-quarters of teachers believe parents' behaviour towards them has grown worse over the past five years, according to an exclusive poll for TES.

The YouGov survey of primary and secondary school staff, ranging from classroom teachers to headteachers, found that only 2 per cent believed parents' behaviour had improved since 2010. Some 25 per cent said there had been no change at all in the way parents behaved and 73 per cent insisted that parental behaviour had worsened.

Teachers told TES that parents' use of social media was exacerbating the problem. David Blow, headteacher of the Ashcombe School in Dorking, Surrey, said situations often became particularly difficult when details were shared online.

"All it takes is something happening locally, or a bad Ofsted - something that a school could have managed really easily five years ago," he said.

"Now, a couple of parents start up a Facebook page and the anxiety can spread. Something that's in print is much harder to deal with than something people are just talking to each other about."

Angry and online

A pastoral leader at a Cumbrian secondary school, who asked to remain anonymous, told TES that she regularly received angry messages online. Email had made the biggest difference to the way she was treated by parents, she said.

"They write it all down and ping it off at one minute past midnight, as aggressive as you like," she said. "I've had a parent say, `I'm going to go to the press. I'll go to the governors. I'll bring the school to its knees.' "

The YouGov survey, of a representative sample of 796 teachers in England and Wales, suggests that parental behaviour is worse in primaries than secondaries.

Among primary teachers, 78 per cent said that parents' behaviour had deteriorated, compared with 67 per cent of their colleagues in secondary schools.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "Primary parents have traditionally expected greater access to teachers than their secondary counterparts.

"Primary school teachers are particularly vulnerable to verbal abuse, because often parents are picking up children from school. But secondary teachers also find themselves being verbally abused in meetings with parents."

The Cumbria pastoral leader said that secondary parents were starting to demand increased access to teachers. "Previously, it might be that you write a letter to a school on a Sunday night and expect a reply by Thursday," she added. "Now, they expect a reply within the hour.

"But I can't think of an interaction where the parents haven't wanted the right thing for their children, even if it's not expressed in the best possible way."

She also believes the internet makes it easier for parents to express things that they wouldn't dream of saying in person. "Email or voicemail sounds very impersonal," she said. "The worst and most aggressive emails I've had have actually turned out to be very gentle conversations in real life."

Violent threats

Ms Keates said that a number of NASUWT members had reported receiving death threats or threats of physical violence over social media. "We've had a teacher going on maternity leave and parents posting comments like, `How selfish is this, going off and leaving my child without a teacher?'," she said.

Parents' comments also included references to teachers' appearance, weight and sexuality, as well as their teaching ability. In one incident reported to the union, a parent said a teacher could "shove his teaching methods up his fucking arse".

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said: "The government's emphasis on market-driven solutions has created an impression that the customer is always right in education. Instead of encouraging parents to respect the authority of headteachers, it's done the opposite."

And Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, said: "You read a lot in the media about how schools aren't good enough. In a climate which is very much about achievement, it can be hard for parents to trust that a school will be good enough for their children."

Mr Stanley recommended that all schools should employ a designated parent-support manager, with responsibility for hearing complaints and arbitrating in disputes. "Teachers are, by and large, responsive to parents if they can sit and have a proper conversation," he said.

`They're angry and scared'

"Face it," says Tony Draper, "there are a lot of people who, when they're angry, the first thing they do is stamp their feet and shout."

The headteacher's school, Water Hall Primary, is in a deprived area of Milton Keynes. He says that there has been an increase in anger and frustration among parents as their benefits have been withdrawn. Others have been evicted by landlords.

"They will come in swearing because they're angry and they're scared," says Mr Draper, pictured, who is serving as president of the NAHT headteachers' union. "All they know is they've been told that they're losing something important to keep their household going.

"Sometimes they don't even know that they're lashing out - they're just angry and we're there. We will take them into an interview room, sit them down. It's about getting them into a state where they can explain clearly what their issues are. Then we can give them support, to enable them to seek the help they need."

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