When push becomes shove

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Bradford College is taking a tough approach with students who bully or abuse others, reports Martin Whittaker

More than a million people suffered from violence at work, according to a 1997 British Crime Survey, and the problem is not gettting any better.

Now, in an effort to help its own staff, Bradford College is running workshops on coping with disruptive behaviour.

The college has been held up as a model of good practice for dealing with disruption and aggression in the workplace.

An inner-city college with about 20,000 full and part-time students, it was one of the first to bring in a code of practice on bullying and harassment in the mid-1980s.

But despite its long track record, disruptive behaviour from students is still an issue, says Carole Moss, head of student services.

"People come from school with this expectation that they're going to be allowed to get away with things as they have at school, or they lack concentration or they just don't have the particular academic discipline.

"I also think it's quite hard to get students committed to the course, and sometimes some of those do flare up," she says.

"Sometimes we see people who are unstable mentally, or who have drugs problems. We have ways of dealing with these people that comes from experience, but also from having an empathy with them."

A training industry has been built around managing workplace conflict. And this month, a new organisation - the Institute of Conflict Management - will be launched. Backed by the Health and Safety Executive, its founder members include private training companies, airlines, NHS trusts, local authorities and universities. It is calling for national standards and accreditation of training in conflict management.

The new body says many employees who have regular contact with the public have to endure abusive, angry and violent behaviour.

Philip Hardy, the chairman of the new institute, said it aimed to become a centre of research and education for conflict management and handling challenging behaviour.

"In almost every industry where people come into contact with the general public, there is an issue about how you deal with somebody if they're angry, agitated or frustrated. It exhibits itself as aggression or, in the worst-case scenario, violence.

"One thing we find in all the service industries we work in - the common factor that keeps coming up is people's lack of tolerance. Their expectations of the service are way beyond what people are capable of delivering, and people seem so ready to turn angry in order to make the point.

"Within education there's a huge need for advice and training in dealing with disruptive pupils and students. We've just created the first link with the insitute."

The FE sector has its own conflict issues, though this seems to be an under-researched area. In 1997, a Further Education Development Agency study found problems, particularly in inner-city campuses.

Graham Peeke, of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, believes that FE has the same concerns over public aggression as any other sector.

"The student body has broadened. As participation in FE has increased, we get exactly the same kinds of problems that any other service provider is likely to get in dealing with members of the public."

At Bradford College, the approach to workplace conflict attempts to cover all relationships - between students, lecturers, and other members of staff.

All new students go through an induction process where tough ground rules are laid down. They are warned of the consequences if they do not respect others. "We expect that students who come to this college do not have to put up with any discrimination, harassment or bullying," says Ms Moss.

"If they're involved in it, they will find themselves subject to disciplinary procedures, and they'll find themselves excluded from the college.

"I say to them 'we don't need you here if you misbehave. We're not like school - we don't need you'."

Similarly, new staff go through an induction process showing them the procedures and back-up provision, should conflicts arise.

The college's counselling service also offers training sessions to stressed-out lecturers who find they have little time for students outside the classroom. One such session, Just Five Minutes, teaches staff how to deal with students' problems quickly.

Carole says: "It's a system that does work. There are groups of staff who come into the college who may feel they do need a little more training in how to deal with 16 to 19-year-olds."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, cites other pressures. Although cases of lecturers losing self-control are not common, they are the result of increasing stress at work, he says.

Previously, lecturers were more often around in the corridors and staffrooms because they worked a maximum of 20-21 teaching hours a week.

"As you got intensification of work, we found that students were being more left to their own devices outside class time.

"So you have a number of processes going on, more students coming in, more students needing more support but actually getting less teaching time.

"The other side is that you have situations where staff are under pressure with new students who are sometimes less keen to learn. Sometimes staff flip. I'm not saying these incidents are common, they're not. In some sense the most staggering thing is how seldom people do flip."

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