Teachers talk about being punched in the stomach, having chisels thrown at them and pupils being allowed to carry knives in school with impunity.
A new survey of 1,079 secondary teachers by teaching union the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association reveals that poor behaviour is an “increasing problem” in school and many teachers feel that being told to “fuck off” and being subject to verbal abuse is now just part and parcel of the job.
But what do teachers think is responsible for creating this bleak scenario?
Many point the finger at inclusion – the policy stating that, wherever possible, children with additional support needs (ASN) should be educated in mainstream schools. They talk about senior management teams using inclusion as a reason not to take any action when pupils misbehave, and even when they are violent.
One teacher comments in the survey that the culture of inclusion is “overwhelming staff” because it is leading to pupils who are “overstepping all reasonable social boundaries” remaining in schools.
Another says that reporting violent incidents is now pointless because no action is ever taken. Councils are “more concerned with virtue-signalling about inclusion than they are about creating a healthy, safe and positive working environment for staff and pupils”, the teacher adds.
However, Billy Burke, vice-president of School Leaders Scotland and headteacher at Renfrew High, says violent incidents are “very rare” and when they do occur they are taken seriously by heads.
“School leaders are acutely aware that supporting the needs of learners with ASN does require additional targeted resource, ensuring that the best people with the best skills are in place to plan, support and respond as required,” he adds.
But pressure has been on for a number of years for schools and councils to drive down their exclusion rates – and with good reason. University of Edinburgh research in 2016 showed that pupils excluded at the age of 12 were four times more likely than other children to be jailed as adults. Professor Susan McVie, co-director of that study, said one of the keys to tackling Scotland’s high imprisonment rates was to cut school exclusion.
The latest national figures show that permanent exclusions have been all but wiped out in Scotland, with just one child excluded permanently from a Scottish school last year. That was down from 60 pupils in 2010 and 248 pupils a decade ago.
Temporary exclusions, meanwhile, have dropped from 63.5 temporary exclusions per 1,000 pupils a decade ago, to 26.8 temporary exclusions per 1,000 pupils last year.
Children with ASN, however, remain far more likely to be excluded than those without ASN. The figures show that they are five times more likely to be punished by being barred from school for a few days.
Bill Colley, trustee of the Scottish ADHD Coalition, acknowledges that children with ADHD “can be very challenging to manage in class”. However, he argues that short-term exclusions are counterproductive, damage self-esteem and fail to address the underlying issues that lead to the disruptive behaviour.
He is calling for better training for teachers and more resources “to deploy strategies which are known to help [pupils with ADHD] to flourish”. Colley adds: “Liaison between child and adolescent mental health services [Camhs] teams, school and parents is needed so that individualised support can be put in place. With that support, the vast majority of children with ADHD will thrive in a mainstream environment, although for some with complex difficulties, other forms of provision should be available.”
However, for schools that have seen input from educational psychologists drop in recent years, liaising meaningfully with the notoriously stretched Camhs could prove extremely difficult, some fear.
Former schools inspector Lorna Walker describes herself as “a fervent supporter of inclusive education”, in a recent submission to an inquiry on poverty and attainment being conducted by Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee. But she says that “budget constraints across all local authorities have impacted most significantly on children and young people with additional support needs”.
She argues that, while the concept of inclusion is laudable, “it is also expensive and requires additional specialist skills, strategies and knowledge that mainstream teachers cannot be expected to have for each child in a class of 30 children”. Walker says there has been a lack of succession planning for support-for-learning teachers – something she describes as “catastrophic”.
Teacher census figures show that across primary and secondary the number of learning support teachers fell from 1,523 in 2008 to 1,188 last year – a drop of almost 22 per cent.
However, Professor Lani Florian, an expert in inclusive education and the Bell Chair of Education at the University of Edinburgh, would like to see the focus move from where children with additional needs are educated, to what happens in the classrooms they are educated in. She argues that, as well as trying to close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, we must close the “practice gap” between teachers who manage to cater for the needs of all their pupils and those who do not.
Florian says: “There is a worry out there that inclusion has failed. In unguarded moments, teachers will express that. But it’s consistency that’s the problem. There is variability in terms of practice, but variability suggests that we do know how to do it.”