The rise of abuse

A survey in 2014 by the School of Education Administration and Management asked school administrators if they had been on the receiving end of abuse from the parent or guardian of a pupil or student in the school during the past year.
Although we had reason to believe that abuse was happening, (not least because school administrators on our in-service courses often mentioned such incidents) we had no idea how much abuse there was. Not one single article on parental abuse of school office staff has appeared in any literature until now.
Indeed there were good reasons to think that if abuse was happening it was happening on a very low scale. These are, after all schools we are talking about and it is quite clear that school office staff don’t make policy.
But contrary to this common sense preconception we found that sitting in the school office taking enquiries is quite likely to open the door to being a recipient of abuse, either face to face or on the phone.

Our survey found that over 16 per cent of administrators in primary and secondary schools said that they had been abused on five or more separate occasions during the past year. Over 42 per cent said that they had been abused between two and four times, and nine per cent said it had happened once.   
Worse, of those who said that they had not experienced such abuse this year, the vast majority said that they had experienced it in the past. Only three percent of the administrators who completed our questionnaire said that they had never been abused.

This finding led the SEAM to start to think about what schools could do about this seemingly regular level of abuse.
The first thing to notice is that unlike GP surgeries, social service centres, government offices, hospitals and the like, school offices don’t carry any notices about staff not tolerating abuse, and what might happen to anyone who behaves inappropriately.
Indeed there seems to be an absolute reluctance of most schools to put up such signs. As several school managers said to me when I asked the question, “Putting up a sign is an admission of a problem, and we’re not going to do that.”

But there is of course more that a school can do – not least in terms of providing training for administrators on how to handle abuse that comes in either on the phone or in person.
When we asked about this we found that only one per cent of those we questioned had such help and support and had also found it helpful not only in coping with the abuse but also in reducing the number of abusive calls and visits.
Just under a quarter said that the help that they had received was very good at allowing them to cope once the incident had occurred but that there was no training to do anything to help stop the incident in the first place.
But the overwhelming majority – just under three quarters of those questioned – said that they had no training. In order words the schools are simply ignoring the problem, either because the management is not aware of it, or because they have no idea what to do about it. From individual conversations I have the impression that the former is the case. “I think you’ll find that doesn’t happen here,” was the reply I had on more than one occasion.

This situation puts the schools on dangerous ground. All employers have a duty in law to provide a safe and secure working environment for all their staff. And yet we were told that two thirds of schools have no active policy which is working to reduce the number of abusive incidents that arise. When eventually an administrator does take her employer to a tribunal over this, it is hard to see that the school will have any defence.
But even this figure does not mean that things are getting better in a third of schools.  In fact only 16 per cent of administrators told us that there was such a policy. Over one in five said that they didn’t know if there was a policy or not.
We find this quite alarming. Abuse of staff is a significant issue, and yet a lot of people who are in the front line when it comes to potentially receiving abuse didn’t know whether their school was doing anything about it or not. Just as with the refusal to put up notices indicating that abuse is not tolerated, once again we have denial.  

What we did find was that the majority of schools appear not to report incidents of this type on to the police or other authorities – thus in effect showing the person who initiated the abuse that they can get away with it.
This is particularly worrying given that we are now in a world in which anyone suffering abuse on line is encouraged to report it directly to the police, who do take action. Put another way, we seem to be moving towards a situation in which people who are abusive on Twitter are dealt with, but people who are abusive in schools are simply left alone to get on with it.

Asking administrators whether the problem of abuse was getting worse led to a split answer.  About equal numbers of respondents (about 42 per cent) said that matters were getting worse, as said that matters were remaining unchanged. Six per cent of those who replied said the number of incidents was declining while seven per cent said they had no incidents of this type.
In short the best we can say is that in some places the problem is staying at its current level, in others it is getting worse. It is not a very reassuring situation.

Having established the level of abuse that is to be found in schools we moved on to the consequences of this level of abuse.

A third of those responding said that they had faced at least one situation that was so bad that they needed to leave the office to recover. Another third said that they had experienced such a situation but had been unable to leave as there was no one else available to take over the office.
A small but significant number said that they had taken time off work as a result, or that they were planning to leave working in a school because of one or more incidents.
But hiding within the detail is something even more alarming than all this. It is very easy to install a digital radio system which allows an administrator in difficulty to bleep an emergency button and get help to the office straight away. Around 27 per cent of schools have such a system, although rather alarmingly nearly a third of administrators in schools with such a system reported that when they used it, no one came. The vast majority of schools however have no such system – even though it would be inexpensive to install such a system and be very helpful for dealing with anyone who entered the school without first reporting fully to reception. These are alarming findings.
Incidents in other settings tell us that where there is verbal abuse going unchecked, so there will follow physical violence, and there can be little doubt that an aggrieved parent is going to take his/her frustrations out one day on an administrator and the administrator will claim damages against her employer for failing to provide a safe working environment.
The tragedy of the current situation is that it looks as if it will take something as awful as this to happen for school management across the country to take the issue seriously.
The SEAM has written to all schools in the UK to inform them of this situation, and to remind school management of this problem, and as a result the number of schools issuing suitable radio devices to administrators and senior management is growing. But far too many schools appear still to be in complete denial.