Teachers strike over pupils' discipline

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The Independent Online

Teachers at a troubled high school said they were 'delighted' today after starting a one-day strike over bad behaviour by children and 'poor treatment' from bosses.

Staff at Darwen Vale High School in Darwen, Lancashire, say they are angry over a lack of backing from the head, Hilary Torpey, and other management at the school when they confront unruly children.

The unusual move - teachers have gone on strike over pay and conditions before but rarely over school discipline - comes after Education Secretary Michael Gove signalled a new crackdown on discipline in the classroom.

Around 70 teachers with placards picketed the school gates today, cheering the occasional hooting of horns in support from passing motorists.

Simon Jones, a local National Union of Teachers (NUT) official manning the picket line, said: "We are delighted with the turnout and the support we are receiving.

"This is not a strike against pupils. It is about management, and management failure to support staff in dealing with challenging behaviour.

"No one wants to demonise the children here, they are no better or no worse than any other.

"The biggest difference between this school and other schools is the management failure to support staff."

The new head, believed to earn between £80,000 and £100,000 a year, was at her desk in the school today, but it was a free day for the 1,100 pupils.

Members of both the NUT and National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) had voted overwhelmingly for the one-day strike action.

The action comes after what unions claim are months of complaints from members about both the pupils and the school management's way of dealing with teachers who have to enforce discipline in the classroom.

Unions say complaints from members at the school include teachers being pushed, shoved and sworn at, and some pupils filming staff on mobile phones and clips being posted on Facebook.

There have also been problems of cyberbullying and pornography.

But when teachers confiscated pupils' phones, they have then been returned by management, leaving staff "totally undermined", it is claimed.

And since last September, when the new head was appointed, five teachers have been suspended, according to staff at the school.

They claim some children have realised that if they are disciplined, they can make a complaint about a teacher's behaviour to get the member of staff suspended.

Mr Jones said: "A really serious part of this is a minority of pupils have got into the habit of making false allegations.

"The head has proven this time and time again, with a number of staff suspended for all sorts of reasons.

"On the one hand, she is draconian with staff, and, on the other, I would not use the words namby pamby but inconsistent with pupils.

"There is a lack of clarity. I think there is a philosophy of not wanting to suspend."

Unions say they have been forced to take strike action because previous complaints, starting before Christmas, to the head and school management have fallen on deaf ears.

But Harry Devonport, director of education at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, suggested the teachers had been hasty in going out on strike.

"I am very disappointed that, so quickly, teachers have felt the need to take strike action," he said.

"There has only been two meetings to discuss this.

"I am saying we have got to this position very quickly without a clear understanding of what the concerns are about.

"The council is working hard to bring the leadership of the school, together with the unions, to clarify what needs to be done."

In its latest Ofsted inspection last June, Darwen Vale was rated a good school where pupils' behaviour was given a good rating.

The original Darwen Vale High School is being rebuilt under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Currently the 1,100 pupils are being housed temporarily in the empty buildings of a former local school, which had a capacity of only 800.

The new £18 million Darwen Vale school is scheduled to reopen in September 2012.

Unions say the looming Easter holidays, starting on Friday, will give more time for the issue to be resolved.

They want the head, governors and local council to come up with a "robust behaviour management policy" and give teachers the freedom to implement it.

Otherwise union officials warn more strike action could not be ruled out.