More than 70 members of staff manned a picket line outside the gates of a Lancashire school yesterday, claiming a lack of support from management over the ill-discipline of pupils and their attempts to introduce a mobile phone ban.
Furious staff at Darwen Vale High School took part in the 24-hour walk out, claiming the headteacher has failed to back them in their attempts to quash bad behaviour at the school, particularly the use of mobile phones, with which they say pupils have recorded lessons to download to social networking websites.
It emerged yesterday that five teachers and support assistants have been suspended in the past 12 months, following complaints from pupils. Simon Jones, a local NUT official in Blackburn, said it was "massively out of proportion" for a school with 80 teachers and support workers.
While one complaint had been upheld, others had been suspended sometimes for several months on "the flimsiest of evidence" before being cleared, he said. Colleagues are still waiting to learn the fate of one member of staff. In one case a teacher attempting to implement the school policy banning mobile phones had been accused of scratching a pupil when trying to confiscate the device. The member of staff was suspended for three months and has only recently returned to work.
"There is some serious and unacceptable behaviour going on and there are quite a lot of widespread issues such as smoking and mobile phone use," said Mr Jones. "But what has galvanized this action is the refusal of senior management to meet us and discuss it."
Teachers claim they have been physically threatened by pupils. There were also concerns over the passing among pupils of pornographic images, also on mobile phones.
One striking teacher said staff were desperate for back up. "Teachers are frightened that if a pupil makes an allegation the staff member will be suspended first and investigated later. It had been a long-standing school policy before recent management changes that pupils who refused to stop using mobile phones in lesson time would have them confiscated. Now we are being told we have to hand them back if the pupils say they're sorry. The pupils think it's a joke," the teacher added. The striking staff members claim the arrival of £80,000-a-year head Hilary Torpey has resulted in the sudden deterioration in relations between management and staff.
But former teacher and associate governor Simon Huggill said it was "totally unfair" to blame Mrs Torpey. "We have quite high numbers of free school meals. We are not in the most fantastic location being in temporary accommodation while the new school is being built. There is a lot going on. But we have a really good set of senior management and good governing body and the school has come up remarkably well," he said.
One 17-year-old claimed it was wrong to suggest there were widespread discipline issues at the school. "There are a few fights but it is always the same people," he said. Another commented: "Ninety five per cent of the pupils at Darwen Vale High School respect the teachers and can talk to them; it's just the five per cent that show us up."
Mrs Torpey wouldn't comment on specific allegations regarding the support offered to staff beyond a statement she posted on the school's website. It read: "I am disappointed that the trade unions have chosen to take this action. The vast majority of pupils at Darwen Vale behave well and take their education seriously. We are in discussions with the unions and with the staff around how we can best resolve this situation so that staff feel well supported when they do need to deal with behaviour issues."