Why I never see parents alone

6th July 2001 at 01:00
The head held hostage over a pupil's nose stud calls for reform in such cases can be excluded. Wendy Berliner reports

The headteacher imprisoned in her office by parents after she refused to allow their 11-year-old daughter to wear a nose stud at school, called this week for legal reform to allow children to be excluded for their parents' sins.

In an exclusive interview with The TES, Sylvia Moore, head of Francis Combe school, an 800-pupil mixed comprehensive in Watford, said children should move to a new school if the relationship between school and family had broken down.

"At the moment, parents can ask for that, but schools can't. I think the law needs to be changed. Without apportioning blame, there ought to be a way of making the education of these children more effective.

"If the home-school relationship is not right, then the environment for learning is not right."

Mrs Moore was speaking for the first time since her ordeal. Parents Diane and John Bell were jailed for nine months in May for falsely imprisoning her while their daughter, Maxine, looked on.

The Bells, from Abbotts Langley in Hertfordshire had pleaded not guilty when they appeared before Snaresbrook Crown Court in Essex.

They had by-passed the school security system, sneaking through an entrance before bursting into Mrs Moore's office. There they threatened her for several minutes, until she was finally able to phone for help.

The Bells' two older children did not go to school after the attack. However, Mrs Bell then saw local education authority officials and said she was sending the children back to school.

Mrs Moore revealed this week that she waited with a council official for several hours on the day they were expected back, but no one came. The children now go to another local school.

"As the law stands, I would have had to have taken them back," said Mrs Moore. "Yet there was no way I could work with that family again. There should be a procedure which, in the best interests of the children's education, can move them from one school to another."

Sylvia Moore has been a teacher for 30 years and head at Francis Combe for eight. Eighty per cent of her pupils are on the special needs register and 13 per cent have statements of special need. There is partial selection in Watford and the intake at Francis Combe is skewed to the lower ability levels; 17 per cent of pupils achieve five or more A*-Cs at GCSE putting the school in the lower regions of the local performance league tables.

"No one gets to be a head without having to deal with irate parents and I had strategies for doing so. This time they didn't work," she said.

Mrs Moore spotted Maxine wearing a nose stud during lunch break on the first day of term, the girl's first day at the school. School rules allow small ear studs or rings but forbid facial jewellery. The rules, drawn up to prevent injuries, are spelt out in letters sent to all parents.

Maxine refused to take the stud out. She was sent home with a letter reiterating the school rules and offering an appointment to discuss the issue.

Mrs Bell came to the school and was so abusive to staff that police had to be called and she was banned from the site. When the Bells later burst into her office Mrs Moore said she faced a torrent of abuse.

She then remembers Mrs Bell shutting the door of the office and leaning on it to block the exit. Mr Bell towered over Mrs Moore, who is just 5ft 2in, and kept stabbing at her with his finger and jerking his head into her face, accusing her of being a bully. At one point, she says, he tried to drag her earrings out. Mr Bell threatened to butt her, causing her whiplash injuries as she recoiled.

"He had completely lost it; it was just a torrent of personal abuse. My face and glasses were covered with his spit; I could smell his breath he was so close. I have never been in such a situation where my personal space felt so violated. I then started to think 'Has he got a knife? Is he winding himself up to stab me?' I was shaking. I felt so frightened and threatened."

Mrs Moore was in tears after the attack and says she has still not fully recovered from the neck injury.

The incident has led her to change her behaviour: "I no longer see parents alone. I always have someone with me. And if there is any chance that these parents might become angry, one of our premises team is outside the door, waiting."

As another precaution the school has had magnetic locks fitted on all doors, paid for by the local authority to prevent people sneaking in during school hours.

Mrs Moore admits that it did make her consider looking for a less challenging school but never considered leaving teaching. "When I go around this school I know how needy some of these children are; I'm not leaving them."

She is a feisty, upbeat personality and appears unscathed by the incident. She pays tribute to her colleagues whose support has helped her recover. "I didn't take any time off. I haven't had nightmares and I haven't had flash backs. I think it was because I didn't run away from them and lock myself in my office loo. I didn't concede to them. I never lost control. It's the one thing I am proud of.

"I can't afford to be emotional about it when I have a school to run. It's over. It's gone."

Leader, 26


Physical assaults or serious threats of violence were recorded against at least 140 school leaders over the past year, representing the "tip of the iceberg", according to the National Association of Head Teachers.

Out of these cases recorded against its members, 88 were physical assaults, many carried out by parents.

Since January 1999, the NAHT legal department hasrecovered pound;350,000 in claims for criminal injuries compensation on behalf of its members.

The NAHT revealed its findings at its annual conference in Harrogate, north Yorkshire, in May.

But a spokesman said this week: "This is to a certain extent the tip of the iceberg as many threats of violence are not recorded and are accepted as part of the scene."

The NAHT has called on the Government to remove the uncertainty surrounding the power of heads to exclude pupils permanently because of their parents' behaviour.

It also urged the Government to remind local authorities to operate a zero tolerance policy to parental violence or threats of violence by banning such parents from premises.

Meanwhile, a TES survey in January also found that one in 10 teachers says they have been assaulted by a pupil over the past year and two-thirds believe that standards of behaviour have declined.

One in four teachers was reported to have been threatened by a pupil while 13 per cent were confronted by parents.

Young staff appear to be most vulnerable. Three out of 10 teachers under the age of 30 have been threatened by a pupil compared with around a quarter of all the other age groups.

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