Teachers are demanding lessons in restraint techniques to help them stop fights between pupils. Many staff are worried they will face assault charges if they intervene physically to break them up, says a report to be published next week.
As a result, children are being excluded from school as fights escalate and the incident becomes more serious. Two-thirds of teachers say they feel strongly that they should have lessons in restraint techniques to help cope with the problem. They would also like to be taught how they should physically escort excluded pupils from the school premises.
The findings follow the first detailed age breakdown of pupils suspended or excluded from school, which showed that although overall exclusion numbers have fallen, more than 4,000 children under the age of five were excluded from school in the past year, mostly for assault. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the huge number of exclusions in the early years reflected teachers' fears that they could lose their jobs if they intervened to stop violent pupils. As a result, they were using suspension powers instead.
Select Education, the largest provider of supply teachers in the country, conducted the survey of more than 100 teachers. Its managing director, Peter Flannery, said: "The growing culture of litigation means that today's teachers are fearful of restraining pupils who are at risk of hurting themselves in case it results in them losing their jobs."
He added: "Physical contact should very much be the last resort. Instead, teachers need to be undertaking training to equip themselves with positive handling strategies that look at de-escalating techniques, such as positive techniques for challenging behaviour with the aim of avoiding physical intervention." All 10,000 teachers and support staff on Select Education's books can receive training in how to defuse challenging situations. However, Scott Kelly, who trains teachers in these techniques, acknowledged that supply staff can often miss out on training – if, indeed, schools organised it – simply because they are not there.
He added that even in cases where an allegation of assault was "unwarranted" against a teacher, a pupil may believe "what is happening is inappropriate contact whereas what the teacher was trying was to make the situation safe".
The aim of the training was to try to avoid physical contact wherever possible. However, new guidance from the Government says teachers can use reasonable restraint to avoid violence.
The survey also shows that nearly three out of four teachers believe many exclusions are caused by a lack of parental discipline at home.
Patrick Mahoney, a teacher with Select Education, said: "While I certainly agree that discipline in the home is a problem, it's important to note the root causes – for example, the growing number of single-parent families who are overwhelmed with responsibilities and unable, on their own, to instil the level of discipline needed." Three out of four teachers also believe parents could reduce the chances of their children being excluded by taking more interest in their education.