Photo by Kenneth Benjamin Reed
Artillery Row

End violence in schools

How can people teach and learn in such dangerous conditions?

Violence against teachers is well documented and widely acknowledged as an occupational hazard. It has indeed become an accepted and, in the eyes of many, acceptable aspect of everyday working life for teachers up and down the country. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “lists those that work in education as one of the occupational groups most at risk from workplace violence. According to an NASUWT survey of nearly 5,000 teachers in April 2019, one in four experienced physical violence from their pupils at least once a week. Nine in ten said that they had received some form of verbal and physical abuse in the past year.

Moreover, a University of Roehampton study, conducted in 2022, concluded that physical attacks — including being kicked, punched and spat at by pupils — are taking a “devastating toll on teaching assistants”, most of whom are female and poorly paid. This follows a 2016 Unison survey of 14,500 support staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which found that 53 per cent of teaching assistants had experienced physical violence in the past year. 

The Government’s own figures show that during the 2018-19 academic year (the latest statistics available for a year unaffected by Covid lockdowns), there were 29,002 fixed-period exclusions and 817 permanent exclusions for physical assault on an adult. There were also 67,226 fixed-period exclusions and 650 permanent exclusions for threatening behaviour towards an adult. These figures speak for themselves — but when one considers the reluctance of schools to officially acknowledge acts of violence lest they invite the unwanted attention of Ofsted, it is clear that they represent the tip of an enormous iceberg. 

Teachers and pupils are being assaulted in some schools on an almost daily basis

More alarmingly, teachers and support staff are not the only victims of violence in our schools. Children are as well. In 2018-19, there were 71,409 fixed-period exclusions and 1,050 permanent exclusions for physical assault on a pupil; there were also 16,426 fixed-period exclusions and 302 permanent exclusions for threatening behaviour towards a pupil. Violence, clearly, is endemic in many British schools.

Why is violence so widespread? We could point to bad parenting, socio-economic deprivation, and the general reluctance of schools to adequately punish children afflicted by them. We could also point to the Rousseauian view, still prevalent in our schools, particularly among senior leaders, that children can do no wrong. According to this perverse and pervasive philosophy, children are corrupted by adults and, in this case, bad teachers that fail to hold their attention. It would therefore be wrong to severely sanction them for communicating their disapproval and frustration, even if it is by assaulting said teachers or even their peers, so they largely go unpunished — or at least punished with excessive levity.

One could indeed argue that the Department for Education figures unwittingly reveal these orthodoxies. There were 97,695 recorded incidents (recorded according to whether they resulted in a fixed-period or permanent exclusion) of adults either being assaulted or threatened with violence during the 2018-19 academic year. However, only 1,467 of those incidents resulted in a permanent exclusion. The overwhelming majority, according to the schools in which they took place, merited a fixed-period exclusion. That is astonishing. The same story unfolds when you analyse fixed-period and permanent exclusions for physical assault on — and threatening behaviour towards — pupils. For example, of 72,459 recorded incidents of physical assault on a pupil, only 1,050 resulted in a permanent exclusion for the perpetrator. And remember, these figures do not include the myriad physical assaults that didn’t even lead to a fixed-period exclusion.

I can testify to having worked in schools in which physical assaults lead to detentions or a day in the isolation room if you’re lucky. Teachers and pupils are being assaulted in some schools on an almost daily basis, but the perpetrators are, in most cases, being allowed back into school to confront and mix with their victims. This is a national scandal. If a teacher or pupil is assaulted, their assailant should be permanently excluded — no ifs, no buts. Such an approach would undoubtedly lead to a reduction in school-based violence.

The refusal to do so is partly due to Rousseauian and relativist orthodoxies that continue to contaminate our schools. It is also the consequence of the Government’s ambiguity when it comes to the use of permanent exclusion as a punishment. The DFE makes clear that it is ultimately the headteacher’s decision — it even lists physical assault against an adult or pupil as an offence that “may warrant a suspension or permanent exclusion”. The problem is in the word “may” and the implication that in some instances a suspension and the perpetrator’s return to school may be a more appropriate sanction. There needs to be an unambiguous, unequivocal declaration in support of permanent exclusion for offences like assault. As I said: no ifs, no buts.

Schools should be obliged to permanently exclude the offending pupil

Ofsted’s guidance is even more confusing. On the one hand, it says that schools with no permanent exclusions will not necessarily be judged positively regarding behaviour — on the other, it warns that an increase in permanent exclusions could trigger an inspection, and will almost certainly lead to a deep-dive into the demographic characteristics of the excluded pupils. You can’t win. Some headteachers — all of whom have a well-justified and pathological fear of Ofsted — will see this as a clear reason not to permanently exclude violent pupils, even though they may want to. Others will see it as the perfect excuse to avoid something they are ideologically opposed to anyway — namely, permanent exclusions. Either way, the result is the same: teachers and pupils are left unprotected.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, given this situation, the teaching unions would be in uproar, pressuring the Government to issue clearer guidance to protect their members. They should be demanding greater clarity and an unambiguous statement from Ofsted and the DFE in support of permanent exclusion in every case of physical assault on either a teacher or pupil. In such instances, schools should indeed be obliged to permanently exclude the offending pupil. 

Alas, the unions demonstrate no such robustness. The NASUWT meekly advises schools to follow their behaviour policies — some of which do not even mention the circumstances in which permanent exclusion would be used. The NEU actively opposes “zero tolerance” approaches that, in their view, unfairly discriminate against vulnerable groups through exclusions, both permanent and fixed-period. In other words, they oppose an approach that would protect the mental and physical health of their members. Is it any wonder that many of our schools have become so dangerous? Is it any wonder that there is a retention and recruitment crisis within the teaching profession? Is it any wonder that both teachers and pupils are suffering from mental health problems? 

The Government needs to act now. The status quo is a stain on the conscience of the nation. Inadequate parenting, ideological orthodoxy, the Government’s shameful ambiguity and union inertia have led to an intolerable situation in which assaults are commonplace and violence endemic in a shocking number of our schools. Violent pupils must be expelled without exception, and the Government and Ofsted should make this unequivocally clear. Once more, if such an approach means investing in alternative provision for such children — an outcome which seems likely — so be it. Teachers and pupils deserve to feel safe at school.

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