Violence Against Teachers – How Should We Respond?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 19 February 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Reading the recent Belfast Telegraph headline, “Union blames budget cuts for spike in pupil assaults on teachers”, three questions immediately spring to mind.

  1. How bad is the problem?
  2. What is causing it?
  3. What should our response be?

In answer to the first question, the Telegraph article by Brett Campbell in November 2017 quotes the Department of Education statistic that more than 600 pupils were suspended for physical attacks against school staff last year, which accounted for almost 10% of all suspensions and amounted to three times more than the previous year. Figures are also up in other regions of the UK.

In response in January 2018 Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUW commented that;

“These figures are deeply shocking but regrettably not all that surprising as it reflects what our members are reporting to us, that they are being assaulted and threatened with violence by pupils, many still in primary school.”

She rightly adds that no teacher should go to work with an expectation that violence may occur and that employers should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. She advocates that a strong message be sent to parents, pupils and the community that such behaviour has no place in schools.

Locally Justin McCamphill NASUWT Northern Ireland Secretary blamed budget cuts as one of the underlying reasons for the huge reported spike in attacks.

"Any discussion of violent and disruptive behaviour in schools has to be put in the context of the budget cuts that are happening in Northern Ireland, which is a significant contributing factor."

It would seem that once again the financial pressures on schools with bigger classes and reduced non-teaching time for pastoral care and support staff are impacting on classroom management.

The BERA review into Violence in Schools 2014, “Violence in UK schools: What is really happening?” gives us a valuable wider perspective and confirms that lower level indiscipline and pupil aggressive behaviour are the main problems in schools in the UK rather than extreme violent assaults.

This Insight review assesses up-to-date, relevant material, but warns that statistics come from a variety of sources often with a disciplinary perspective.  While some pupils, parents and teachers say that they worry a great deal about bullying and safety in schools, BERA suggests that these concerns should nevertheless be tempered by the evidence. The most important thing they suggest is that extreme cases of violence, including severe bullying which leads to death, are very rare in UK schools unlike the situation in the USA where mass shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre in which 20 children and seven staff lost their lives, are tragically more common.  By contrast here however, low-level disruption, verbal aggression between pupils and towards teachers and cyberbullying appear to be increasing.

In terms of our response, should we, therefore, separate this wider, lower-level problem from dangerous, potentially fatal assaults? In America training for teachers on simulators is proposed to prepare for such ghastly eventualities but still with no prospect of a change to their gun laws. Here the fatal stabbings of head teacher Philip Lawrence in London at the school gates in 1995 and Ann Maguire in her Leeds classroom in 2014 are out of the ordinary, but nonetheless symptomatic of a general rise in knife crime which we must face up to.

In Scotland, there has been some success in tackling the problem. Youth work and positive prevention have been key drivers. The “No Knives, Better Lives” initiative was launched in 2009 when knife crime was at a high. It supports work in 24 local authorities in Scotland and involves partners including the police, youth workers and schools. It involves trying to talk to young people in school and help them develop the capacity to make positive decisions and choose never to carry a knife or to do something if they know that someone else is carrying a knife.

This month in London schools a new strategy has been launched too;

“As part of his robust package of measures to crack down on knife crime, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is urging more schools across the capital to take up his offer of a knife detection wand and join the 76 schools now using one to help prevent knife crime and keep young Londoners safe”

Research in USA by Professor Ron Avi Astor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles found, that high schools that improved test scores were very likely to show violence improvements in the future. The research team also examined whether changes in student demographics at a school could be causing violence to go up or down, instead of the academic gains. But their conclusion - that academic gains preceded school safety improvements – remained true. So is the traditional approach of focus on examination excellence of our schools in Northern Ireland still the best answer to negative pupil behaviours?

In the event that a problem does occur, ATL offers excellent advice if a teacher has been assaulted. They recommend that the affected person initially should be allowed access to a private area where they can sit with a friend. They may wish/need to leave school and go home to attend a GP or a hospital, accompanied by a friend, representative or colleague where a medical assessment of any injury should be made as soon as practicable and a doctor’s report obtained.  A written record of the assault, any injury and the circumstances leading up to the assault, should be made as soon as possible. If necessary the Department for Work and Pensions should be notified by completing the relevant section of the industrial injuries disablement benefit form, declaring an industrial accident. This could be important if the effects of the assault continue and a claim for disablement benefit becomes appropriate. They add that staff who have been assaulted should not be directed to teach or supervise the student if she/he returns to school. Indeed other staff may also object to having to teach the pupil.

ATL also recommend that the school should immediately suspend the student pending investigation and consideration of the appropriate disciplinary process and penalties and ensure that the assault is reported to the police.

It is clear that the tried and tested strategies of well-resourced pastoral support in schools are essential for both pupil and staff wellbeing and safety. The research evidence and our own local experience shows that a focus on effective learning and well-resourced support for pupils experiencing difficulty will reduce behavioural problems. So it is true that there is a link between behavioural problems and budget reductions but we must be careful to clearly differentiate between serious physical assaults and more generalised pupil problem behaviour as we consider appropriate responses to both dimensions of the problem.


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This article is correct at 19/02/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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