The teacher whose jaw was broken by a secondary school student. The teacher threatened with a piece of jagged glass by a nine-year-old child. The headteacher kicked so hard by a pupil that it cracked a bone.
These are just some of the shocking cases of violence that have been meted out to teachers working in British schools by pupils and parents over the past few years. And the effects on those subjected to such attacks last much longer than it takes broken bones to knit back together.
“It makes you sick to the pit of your stomach,” says Mark McCadden, headteacher of Birdham Primary School in West Sussex, who has been on the receiving end of spitting, punches and kicks. “It makes you question why you bleed – literally sometimes – sweat and blood to do the job.”
Why do teachers get attacked? Is it getting worse? And what can schools do to stop it occurring and keep their staff safe?
Violence against teachers is nothing new, but it has returned to the headlines in recent weeks. On Monday, an exclusive Tes/YouGov poll revealed that 57 per cent of teachers thought that standards of classroom behaviour had declined. And in October, a group of 11 teachers at an Edinburgh special school were sent home and had their pay stopped when they refused to teach or supervise eight pupils who they claimed posed a risk to their health, safety and welfare. The teachers’ union NASUWT Scotland said the group had faced “month after month” of violent physical assaults, verbal abuse and threats at Kaimes School.
At Prime Minister’s Questions recently, Theresa May spoke out against the “considerable bullying and harassment” that teachers are often subjected to on social media, and said that violence against teachers was “an issue that we do need to look at”. The phenomenon is not just confined to the UK; across the Channel, French teachers highlighted on social media the abuse they’ve received after a 15-year-old pupil was filmed pointing a fake gun at his teacher’s head in a Paris suburb.
Amanda Brown, deputy general secretary of the NEU teaching union, says that the threat of violence is “one of those facts of life” that is always in the back of teachers’ minds. According to the 2016-17 Crime Survey for England and Wales, teaching and education professionals experience a higher-than-average rate of violence at work. Across 25 occupational areas, teachers had the ninth highest level of violence. And figures from the Office for National Statistics show that an average of about 8,000 attacks on school staff occur per year.
If you talk to school leaders, perceptions about the prevalence of violence vary. Carl Ward, chief executive of the City Learning Trust (which runs five schools in Stoke-on-Trent) and immediate past president of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that serious acts of violence are “still an odd occurrence, it’s not regular”.
But McCadden presents a more worrying picture. Addressing a conference of 140 headteachers from West Sussex, he asked how many had been physically assaulted in the past year. About three-quarters raised their hand, he says.
Situation now ‘palpably worse’
What teachers agree on is that, when violence does occur, it can have a devastating effect. A former colleague of Ward’s was punched in the jaw by a student in an unpremeditated attack. “That teacher spent many years having a number of operations, having that broken jaw put right,” he recalls.
McCadden recounts four alarming cases that have been experienced by headteacher colleagues. Two involved headteachers being threatened with a knife – in one instance wielded by a pupil, in the other by a parent. Both cases required the attendance of the police. Another head sustained a life-changing injury after being kicked by a pupil.
McCadden says he has photos of a fourth headteacher whose legs were “so badly kicked and bruised, you are hard-pressed to see the colour of her skin”. The assault was from “a group of pupils…a gang attack”.
In a further incident, a staff member at a previous school in which McCadden worked was “threatened by a nine-year-old with a piece of jagged glass, waving it at her neck”.
“She retreated, to then be pelted by rocks and stones, with a tirade of verbal abuse,” he adds.
McCadden says that the situation facing teachers has become “palpably worse” in recent years. He links this to “a really worrying decline in children’s mental health.”
Ward agrees: “I have seen, particularly over recent years, incidents where children are getting more and more frustrated with their life,” he says. “It manifests itself when they come to school because sometimes they can’t let that go at home.” He attributes this to “the financial difficulties that the country has been going through”, adding that some children have “never known any other way to live than hand-to-mouth or going to food banks”. The effect of austerity on public services is also blamed. “There has been a massive decrease over the past eight years of the support services that children and families can access,” says Ward.
Some people think that funding and recruitment pressures have reduced schools’ capability to manage behaviour, making classrooms more combustible places.
Sarah*, a former cover supervisor who experienced aggression from pupils while working at a challenging school on the south coast (see box, page 47), says that the school’s parlous recruitment situation exacerbated an “endemic and deep-seated cultural issue with behaviour management”.
She told Tes how she was shoulder barged by a student and, on another occasion, had a heavy, pointed wooden doorstep thrown at her head. “The frustrations that [pupils] are feeling – completely wrong though their violent and aggressive behaviour is – you have to dig deep into what’s causing that,” she says. “Some of the students in this school might have had seven cover lessons in a day, so they were utterly exasperated.”
Legal duty to staff wellbeing
So how should schools respond to violence? There are specific things that they could do (see box, left) in the aftermath of an attack, including ensuring the medical needs of the teacher are met, as well as applying relevant behaviour policies.
Depending on the severity of the incident, in some circumstances it might be appropriate to contact the police or have recourse to other legal procedures. It is critical that the management team is mindful of the long-term emotional and psychological effects on the victim, and acts to support their needs.
Brown says that schools must take action to prepare for and prevent violence through careful risk assessment. “Schools need to be thinking about the different kinds of scenario that either have happened, or that might reasonably be thought to happen, and take steps to think those through,” she says. If a school does not do this, they are failing in their legal obligations to their staff under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. “Every school, every employer, has a duty of care to their staff and they need to have thought through difficult or risky situations so that they can take steps to avoid them, as far as is reasonable,” she says.
Ward ensures that all his primary teachers (a setting in which incidents occur more frequently, he believes) receive “positive handling” training. “It allows teachers to recognise a child that may be moving towards that emotional state [of violence], and effectively handle children to minimise the chances of a physical assault happening.”
What is clear is that prevention of violence is not reducible to a school’s behaviour policy. Ward thinks you need “good teaching and learning, good pastoral staff, good systems, systems that work across the school”. Meanwhile, Sarah, the ex-cover supervisor, thinks the unsafe environment fundamentally reflected a “complete failure of leadership” in the school.
Mutual support between schools and teachers can be a huge help. Ward points out that sharing the cost of positive-handling training between schools in his trust dramatically lowers the cost. “I’m a strong believer that groups of schools, especially those that are closer to each other in geography, really can come together to work and help with that,” he says.
McCadden says talking to heads in his local area has been invaluable. “We all are in little pastoral groups where we share problems with one another; we remind each other that we’re not alone,” he says “The chances are, if it’s happened to me, it’s happened to you.”
Tackling violence against teachers and other school staff is imperative. Sarah best sums up what happens when management cannot provide a safe working environment.
“Prior to taking that job, it was my intention to do the PGCE,” she says. “The experience I had within that school, even though I only did it for two months, it traumatised me so much that I decided, no, I’m not dealing with that. There is absolutely no way, after what I went through in that school, that I would go and do that.
“Yet, I know I could have been a very good teacher.”
Be prepared in the aftermath of a violent attack
When dealing with assaults on staff, it is essential that schools have arrangements in place for:
• Fulfilling the necessary administrative and legal procedures, including the proper reporting of the incident.
• First aid and other emergency medical treatment required by any injured party.
• The provision of appropriate emotional support, such as counselling, for those who are directly or indirectly affected.
‘It was absolute hell’
Sarah* took a job working as a cover supervisor in a school on the south coast. She had previously worked in challenging schools, but as soon as she arrived at this one she became aware of an “endemic and deep-seated cultural issue with behaviour management”.
“Some supply teachers were promising to me that they’d never experienced anything like it in their lives,” she recalls. “Increasingly, supply teachers were commenting to me that their agency had begged them to go to the school.”
Staff were treated with “complete and utter derision and disrespect” by pupils who had “no filters or boundaries”, and it wasn’t long before Sarah was feeling “very unsafe”.
The first assault happened when she kept a Year 9 maths class behind for a few extra minutes because they’d been disruptive during the lesson. When she let the pupils leave the room, “the ringleader of the people who’d been causing the disruption in the first place shoulder-barged me out of the way”.
Sarah says she was “pretty upset” and “a bit shaken” by the experience. She immediately informed the head of year, but “nothing was ever done about it” and no entry was made into the school’s system for recording poor behaviour.
The second incident occurred when she was taking a Year 10 English group. The pupils had been set some work and Sarah sat down to check her emails. “Suddenly, there was an almighty crash and this massive wooden doorstop landed on my keyboard,” she says. “The thing was about a foot long…with a very sharp triangular point and very heavy.
“The pupil who threw it had not been out of his seat – he must have taken that doorstop when he came in and armed himself with it”.
After two months, Sarah decided to leave the school. She also ditched her ambition to become a teacher.
“I was calling the Education Support Partnership helpline regularly for support because it was so incredibly stressful,” she says. “In 32 years of employment, I had never had a job like it. It was absolute hell.”
*Not her real name