Education: To sir, with love - a panic button: As violence towards teachers increases, security measures and staff training are at last on the agenda, says Sarah Strickland

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The Independent Online
Mavis Grant, head of Mary Trevelyan primary school in Newcastle upon Tyne, was working in her office early one morning when the mother of one of her pupils marched in, fists flailing.

Without a word the woman punched Mrs Grant in the face and knocked her to the ground, causing her head to bang against the wall as she fell. Mrs Grant was taken to hospital. Her attacker, who had objected to Mrs Grant pointing out her child's poor attendance record in an end- of-term report, was prosecuted and given a suspended sentence.

'The shock hit me about two days after the attack,' says Mrs Grant. 'I experienced a loss of confidence and a wariness that was not there before.'

The assault was also highly distressing to her staff, who feared they themselves might be attacked. 'Some felt we should not put ourselves in such a vulnerable position,' she says. 'But I struggled against a kneejerk reaction.'

About 12 schools in the borough have fitted coded entry phones to their main entrance, which means that all other doors must be locked.

'But that's not the sort of school I want,' says Mrs Grant. 'Our success is based on parental involvement and the majority are highly supportive. For many kids the school is a haven. We don't want to create a fortress; it's a difficult balance.'

Mrs Grant contacted Newcastle City Council, which had already installed a panic button in one school where a parent had threatened to break the headteacher's legs and throw him out of the window. It installed a button in Mrs Grant's office and aims to have up to two - at a cost of pounds 100 each - in all its 140 schools by 1995. Calls are linked to a security firm and automatically re-routed to the nearest police station; responses are more rapid than if the school were to dial 999.

Since the button was installed, Mrs Grant feels more confident about working alone in the evenings and has successfully deterred an aggressive parent simply by threatening to press it. She has also issued staff with personal alarms and helped the council to set up training courses for teachers in coping with violence and aggression.

All schools face this difficult balancing act. The British Crime Survey of 1988 found that teachers were one of the groups most vulnerable to attack. Reported incidents involving pupils include headbutting, punching and kicking; assaults with hammers, chisels, bottles and chains; even desks and chairs being thrown. In the primary sector most assaults on teachers are by parents, whereas in secondary schools the threat is more likely to come from pupils - although reports of attacks by primary school pupils are on the increase. No national figures are available, so the extent of the problem is difficult to gauge. But Lord Elton's enquiry into discipline in schools in 1989 found that only 2 per cent of the 3,600 teachers surveyed had experienced physical aggression from pupils in the previous week.

Eamonn O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), estimates that about 3,000 teachers a year suffer some form of assault. 'It is a small but worrying proportion. It's also fairly widespread, not just something that affects inner-city comprehensives.'

Brian Carter, regional secretary for the Midlands branch of the National Union of Teachers, believes the problem is growing. A year ago he was receiving about six cases of assaults by pupils per year, compared to between 20 and 30 now, and one case of an assault by a parent, compared to six now.

John Bushell, a teacher and NASUWT representative from Swansea, says violence in schools is now 'endemic' and that it is 'only a matter of time' before a teacher is murdered. 'A lot of teachers are cracking up because of it and leaving the profession or taking early retirement.' He says many fear being falsely accused of child abuse since the introduction of the Children Act, which makes it difficult for teachers physically to restrain children or even touch them for their own protection.

Assaults can leave teachers badly scarred, not only physically. Loss of confidence is common, but they may also face clinical depression and need long periods off work. One teacher told the NUT: 'My nerves became so bad that I had to resign my post and now receive an infirmity pension.' Another had suffered 'professional embarrassment' and had not wanted to disclose the incident, in case it adversely affected his career prospects.

Chris Keates, NASUWT's Birmingham representative, says teachers often see attacks by pupils as a reflection on them. 'They often don't get over that challenge to their authority, but they are more willing to come forward now.'

Ms Keates is currently dealing with a case at a primary school in Birmingham in which a pupil has assaulted a teacher twice. The child's parents refuse to have him sent to a special unit, so NASUWT members have been instructed not to teach him. 'If a child hits a teacher and is still in school the next day, it sends out totally the wrong message to the other pupils,' says Ms Keates.

Local authorities, she believes, need more pressure placed on them not to overturn exclusions. For persistently violent children, exclusion from the mainstream may be the only answer, but it means loss of revenue for the school and extra expense for the authority.

A common complaint from teachers who have been attacked is that they did not know who to turn to. John Bangs, assistant secretary for education at the NUT, says too few local authorities have a policy for responding to assaults. 'They should also have an accessible point of contact for headteachers when they need practical advice - on whether they can take off a boy's clothes if they know he has a knife on him, for example, or throw a parent out of a playground,' he said.

The main teaching unions issue guidelines to teachers on what to do if they are assaulted - such as getting witnesses, reporting the attack to the police immediately and undergoing medical checks by both a police surgeon and a GP. The police rarely do more than caution pupil assailants. Teachers can seek compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board or, as NASUWT is now encouraging its members, they can take out private prosecutions.

Eric Forth, the minister for schools, has invited the teacher unions to discuss classroom discipline before guidelines are published next year. As well as smaller class sizes and support for schools facing disruptive behaviour, the unions will probably call for a central register to monitor assaults - something the Elton report recommended four years ago.

(Photograph omitted)

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