Violence in schools - counting the cost and managing the risks

The survey which questioned over 1,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders in schools and colleges across the UK about behavioural issues, provides conclusive proof that this is something that cannot be ignored.

Nearly 90 per cent of staff had dealt with low level disruption such as talking and not paying attention (89%), over 50 per cent reported verbal attacks, and nearly 40 per cent intimidation. In addition, over 650 staff reported physical aggression including pushing and shoving (83%), the use of fists (48%), or legs (42%). Incidents of physical attacks were far more prevalent in primary schools with 48 per cent of staff reporting pupils being physically aggressive, compared with 20 per cent working at secondary level.

Sixty-four staff reported having been physically harmed by a student, while over a fifth reported mental health problems and a third lost their confidence at work. Almost 40 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession due to poor behaviour by students. Most of the physical aggression was directed at other pupils (87%), although over a quarter of incidents were aimed at the respondent and a further 44 per cent were aimed at either another teacher, or a member of support staff.

A head of department at a state secondary school in Leicestershire, said: "I have been physically assaulted twice (both times violent behaviour was aimed at another student but in their rage hit me) and sexually assaulted twice (groping). I felt like going off sick but didn't, despite then being physically sick each morning at the thought of going to work and wondering whether my teeth were going to get knocked out. I feel that we get no support from government -they have no idea of the reality of inner city schools."

Death Threat
Another head of department in a state primary school in Essex commented: "I have had a threat to my life from a parent because I told a child to complete their homework during part of their 'goldentime'. It was threatened that they and their family would kill me when I came to or from school. The head personally transported me to and from school every day, arranged counselling, banned the parent from the school grounds and set up court proceedings to get an injunction (which we achieved). I would not be working at my current workplace if it was not for the undeniable support I received."

These examples show both the seriousness and the catastrophic effects that such incidents have on both the professional and private lives of staff in schools and colleges throughout the country. So what can and should be done to mitigate what, for some, is seen as a growing problem for educational professionals?
Perhaps first and foremost, schools and colleges should have clear, practical policies and procedures which support staff in their management of situations that might involve violence, threatening behaviour or abuse.

These should be working documents that everyone understands, including students and parents, and they must be seen to be in operation on a daily basis with no exceptions. Difficulties arise when there is lack of consistency in the way that policies and procedures are viewed, and it is therefore essential for leaders and managers to take the lead and model good practice with the full backing of governing bodies who, in maintained schools, have a legal responsibility for the conduct of the school.

Whilst any such documents reflect the individual context of the institution, there are certain core areas which should be covered. These include: discipline and behaviour; abusive, threatening or violent adult visitors; dealing with offensive weapons and knives, and use of reasonable force.

It should be made clear that abuse, threatening behaviour or assaults are totally unacceptable and will result in appropriate punishment, including permanent exclusion or the involvement of the police. Clear boundaries of what is acceptable as well as a hierarchy of sanctions and a linked system of rewards should form an integral part of the policy.

It is also important that the general principles take into account the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs. Finally, as with all written documentation, it must be reviewed regularly to ensure that it is still practical and fit for purpose, taking into account: the ethos of the school, its values and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour; the school's moral code; positive and constructive rules of conduct, and the rewards and punishments, which must be fairly and consistently applied.

As well as clear policies, swiftly and consistently acted upon, it is important that all staff have up-to-date, relevant training to prevent unacceptable behaviour in the first place. Recognising what triggers aggressive and violent episodes is a necessary part of the skills of an educational professional. Bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) which provides guidance on emotional and behavioural disorders can be useful in this respect.

Indeed physical confrontation is less likely to develop if patterns of behaviour are recognised and dealt with early on, and this is as true in the classroom as outside when dealing with angry or frustrated parents. Training should cover areas including: reading body language; making a calm assessment of potentially threatening situations; reacting in the event of a physical attack; using reasonable force and powers to restrain, and dealing with unexpected confrontations and conflicts.

As a union, ATL provides training courses on behaviour management, as well as policy and procedures which schools and colleges may find useful.
Building good relationships both within and outside the school and college community is also a vital tool in tackling poor behaviour. Open, honest and regular contact with parents and carers is essential to ensure that not only young people, but also adults, learn what is, and what is not acceptable, in terms of behaviour. This needs to start from the beginning of their contact with a school or college and should be viewed as an important induction tool. Where appropriate, other agencies such as community police officers or social workers can help facilitate this process.

Outside bodies can play a positive role in enhancing the curriculum and promoting a caring environment, where respect for others and the importance of self-discipline are paramount. Well-planned and relevant citizenship and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) also provide a vehicle to get this message across.

Good Practice
However, perhaps most important in this process, is the role of the school or college leadership team as a model of good practice. Where an institution's moral code and values are constantly on display in the words and actions of leadership teams, then it becomes much more difficult for poor behaviour to flourish.

Leaders who are visible, accessible, fair in their judgements and willing to listen to and act upon advice of others in their communities, provide the foundation stone for good behaviour to develop. Where high expectations in all aspects of school and college life are not only promoted but demanded, then poor discipline ceases to be a major issue.

ATL's leadership section AMiE produces publications on best-practice for experienced and aspiring leaders, as well as workshops both on-line and face-to-face to help leaders and managers develop the skills they need to promote the highest standards in their schools and colleges. After all, effective teaching and learning, which should always be the key priority for any educational institution, can only take place in a well-ordered environment, free from fear. This is why the issue of poor behaviour, in any form, should not be ignored or tolerated to ensure the well-being of all concerned.

Further information
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy -
Association of Managers in Education -