Why we must face up to violence in colleges

If we ignore the risk of violence, can we really say that we are safeguarding those we teach, asks Tom Starkey

Tom Starkey

Violence isn't common in colleges, but we must still be prepared for it, writes Tom Starkey

When it comes to violence in colleges, there’s a tendency to turn away.

The visceral experience of inflicted pain (especially when it takes place in an educational establishment) is not one that is enjoyable to ponder (let alone witness) as it strikes at the heart of what we believe about our young people and brings forward an underlying dark potential that is difficult to accept. 

In response to this, there seems to be a tendency to underplay, to talk about “extremes”, to keep things where they are comfortable. Even try to dismiss those that talk about their experience of it. 

More news: We must look at violence against teachers, says PM

Opinion: Tes FE Podcast: How safe is your college?

Background: Machetes, metal bars and gun found in colleges

Accepting the risk of violence

I can understand. It is not something we want to associate with education. It means that those we teach can display the capacity for damage. As do we all.

But in turning away from the things that make us feel uncomfortable, or may cause us to question deeply held beliefs about our nature and the nature of others, we (ironically) leave ourselves open to attack.

If we do not face violence, or at least prepare for its potential, then can we really say that we are safeguarding those we teach? There is worry about the demonisation of young people if any emphasis is placed in these areas, but I believe the opposite. I believe that in ruminating on potential violence, we are accepting of humanity and the way it displays itself – whether good or bad. We are ensuring that we embrace everything that people are, not just the things we find palatable.

Assessing threats to colleges

During a week in which Unison was calling for staff training on how to deal with weapons that are brought on to campus, I think there is an opportunity to hold our gaze and assess threat in a realistic manner. What are the security procedures in your college? Do you know what to do if there is a fight? Are there trained staff? Does there need to be more? As someone who has both stopped and sustained injury in their FE career during bouts of violence by students, I know that having a plan and being confident in college procedures – although no guarantee of prevention – goes a long way towards putting your mind at ease.

There’s a chance that I might get accused of scaremongering for writing this piece, but that’s really not what it’s about. Violence is, thankfully, a relatively small part of college life. Fights and attacks are rare. But that doesn’t negate the responsibility we have to try to minimise the harm that may occur when these things happen. That can’t be done by turning away. It can’t be combated by the pretence that it doesn’t happen

Sometimes you have to look violence firmly in the eye and stare it down, no matter how ugly the prospect. There are people who are relying on you to do it.

Tom Starkey is an education writer, consultant and former further education lecturer

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