Teachers fear restraint powers will bring chaos

Unions warn that unless they are given proper training, staff will be open to false claims of abuse
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The Independent Online

Thousands of teachers in the UK fear chaos in the classroom if the Government goes ahead with plans to give them powers to restrain and search unruly pupils without proper training.

Four out of five teachers surveyed by the Teacher Support Network warn that extra training is essential if they are to get a grip on misbehaviour during lessons and avoid injury and false accusations of abuse when breaking up fights. Some teaching unions believe trained security staff should be employed by all schools to carry out searches and impose discipline.

Teachers insist that sustained "low-level" disruption is what causes the most stress. A study by Warwick University found that while the number of serious incidents in 2008 was lower than in 2001, those involved were more severely affected.

Teaching leaders claim that unless the issue is tackled in schools, the problems will continue into adult life. Problems range from name-calling and minor scuffles to homophobic and racist abuse, cyber-bullying and teachers being seriously assaulted. A survey of about 1,000 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that more than half had been confronted with aggression in the classroom in the past year. Almost 60 per cent agreed that behaviour had got worse in the past five years.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has established that children as young as six have been physically restrained by staff to prevent their aggressive behaviour from endangering teachers and other pupils.

On Wednesday, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, will confirm to MPs that teachers will be given anonymity in cases where pupils make serious allegations against them in an effort to prevent malicious claims being made.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) points to figures which show that in 2009 more than 1,700 staff in UK schools were accused of "misbehaviour" by parents or pupils, of which only 143 were dismissed or resigned and "a small percentage" merited police investigation.

"The key issue is that teachers are particularly vulnerable to false allegations by pupils," said a spokesperson from the NASUWT teachers' union. "This can have a devastating effect on their professional reputation, as well as their personal well-being. Teachers have found that due to inconsistencies in reporting by police, a Criminal Records Bureau check will make reference to an allegation, even though it is unfounded."

Mr Gibb will also be challenged by the education select committee over proposals to give teachers power to restrain unruly pupils and carry out searches for phones, pornography, music players, cigarettes and knives. However, there are already concerns about the number of councils that do not keep records of teachers physically intervening in incidents. An IoS survey revealed that only 30 out of more than 200 UK councils keep records of the number of times teachers physically have to restrain pupils in schools. But most of the local education authorities (LEAs) that did produce figures showed a steep increase in the number of children subjected to restraint holds.

Hampshire County Council recorded 4,799 restraint incidents over the past five years. In Redbridge, the total almost doubled from 59 in 2005 to 113 in 2009. During the same period,

the annual total for Stockport rose from 19 to 143.

Some teachers fear the government proposals "may potentially create further difficulties". Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children's Commissioner for England, and the Children's Rights Alliance are leading calls for official records to be kept in all schools, "with an expectation that head teachers monitor their use to discourage ineffective teachers from becoming over-reliant on [the enhanced powers]". In a new pamphlet entitled The Classroom of Today – Seat of Learning or Educational Warzone?, Dr Atkinson seeks to dispel the perception that "most teenagers leave the house for school every morning armed to the teeth and intent on creating as much mayhem as they can get away with".

The National Union for Teachers (NUT) is demanding an "unequivocal statement" from ministers that if teachers use their powers to search pupils or their rights regarding physical restraint, "there will be no unforeseen consequences arising from their actions". "Teachers have a duty of care to pupils which may at times cause them to intervene to protect pupils from harming themselves or other pupils," the NUT warned. "Many are currently not confident that if they take such action they will be supported by senior leadership teams, parents or the local authority."

Helen Earl, an educational psychologist at Cumbria County Council, said: "On the occasions when teachers need to search pupils, we need to be more precise so we are not opening up opportunities for accusations."

David Leadbetter, a former social worker who has trained Scottish teachers to handle disruptive youngsters, believes the failure to train staff in proper restraint techniques is a major concern. He said: "There is a hidden epidemic of restraint injuries, fatalities and near misses."

Alison Peacock, a "super-head" who turned round a primary school in Hertfordshire, recalled the "challenging behaviour" when she first took over, which included "children throwing furniture, punching and kicking between children, physical assaults and verbal abuse of staff, racial and gender intolerance and abuse". She said: "The behaviour of the parents whose children were acting out was often far more challenging than that of their offspring."

Case studies

Dee Tomlin

Music teacher at a secondary school in Oxfordshire

"I was attacked at another school. I was taking choir practice and I went out and asked her not to kick a door. It doesn't happen to every teacher, but it does happen.

"Teachers suffer a huge amount of stress through behaviour issues. If behaviour is dealt with consistently, the kids know where they stand. If not, kids see a way round it. Most of the time it is a minority, but they are a very, very loud minority. What about the silent majority of kids who don't misbehave? We have got to make sure the majority don't suffer as well.

"The new rules on restraint have to be dealt with very carefully. [Ministers] need to involve the unions and talk to teachers who have experience, not just deciding themselves sitting in offices in Whitehall."

Alec Clark

Head of pupil referral unit in South Wales

When Dr Clark began his teaching career at a Catholic girls' school in London, the worst misbehaviour he ever faced in the classroom was a frustrated pupil telling him to shut up.

Ten years later, as the head of a pupil referral unit (PRU), his staff are confronted with intimidation and violence on a daily basis.

"Behaviour is certainly getting worse," said Dr Clark, whose unit deals with some of the most disruptive pupils in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area. At least one of them is only four years old. "We are picking them up younger, and there are many more girls," Dr Clark added. "I think the deterioration in behaviour stems from a poverty of aspiration. Education isn't important to them, so they couldn't give a monkey's about behaving themselves at school.

"We are losing the bright young teachers, and it makes it even more stressful for guys like me who stay. But it also makes for a large element of the teaching profession who are worn out and there only because they have got a mortgage to pay. That is in no one's interests."