Teacher's £280,000 for attack by boy, 13

Woman left in pain and suffering flashbacks after assault at special school wins second-highest award
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sharon Lewis was 26 and four and a half years into her teaching career when an attack by a 13-year-old boy brought it to an abrupt end. She was jumped from behind, grabbed in a headlock and she fell to the floor, hitting a wall and a window. Doctors have told her she will never hold down a full-time job again. She still has only limited feeling in her left side, has lost her concentration and is nervous of being in a group, especially if children are in it.

Yesterday, after nearly five years of fighting for compensation, Ms Lewis won £280,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, the highest award ever obtained for any of member of her union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

The boy's punishment was one day's exclusion from the special school where she was attacked. "He would have come back thinking he'd had a nice day off," she said. "It's almost saying that if you're involved in teaching you must expect a level of violence."

Latest figures show there is at least one serious assault on a teacher every school day, 270 a year, a NASUWT survey shows. Britain's teachers' unions are regularly winning more than £3m a year in compensation for their members, with assaults and accidents as a result of shoddy buildings the main reasons for the payouts.

A report by the National Union of Teachers revealed that the youngest pupil to have assaulted a teacher was just four: the boy constantly kicked and punched his reception class teacher in the back. She won £1,650 compensation from the CICA.

Ms Lewis's award coincided with publication of the final report by Sir Alan Steer, the Government's behaviour "tsar", on how to improve conduct in schools. Sir Alan, the retired head of Seven Kings school in Ilford, Essex, recommended that all schools should enter behaviour and attendance partnerships with their neighbours to share ideas about how to tackle problems. He said experience showed they "have had a dramatic effect on helping identify problems before they become 'crises'."

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has announced that every secondary school should get to know their local police officer, who could then work alongside pupils to help prevent crime and poor behaviour getting out of hand. Already one in five schools throughout the country has its own police officer; several in inner cities provide police with an office on the school site.

In Ms Lewis's case, the boy who attacked her had a history of violent eruptions at school, which included an assault on another member of staff. The special school caters for pupils with disabilities including learning difficulties and severe and often complex behavioural and emotional needs, up to the age of 16. "He had a lot of complex problems," Ms Lewis said. "I don't actually feel anything bad towards him at all. He is as much a victim as I was, in a sense. What really made me angry was that there seemed to be this expectation that in education teachers would experience violence and they had to accept is. I think that's very, very wrong."

Ms Lewis, now training to become a part-time counsellor, said she felt "fairly numb" when she heard the size of the award. "Then I was really pleased; at least it sends out a message about the seriousness with which society views an assault on a teacher. But a friend pointed out that, if I had worked as a teacher [until retirement], it would be the equivalent of £9,000 a year."

Only one payment to a teacher for an assault has ever been higher: £402,000 to an unnamed Sheffield teacher whose career was also ended after an assault by a pupil.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "Sharon's life has been turned upside down. She can no longer practise the career of her choice and the profession has lost a talented teacher. I am pleased that we have been able to secure compensation for Sharon but this is cold comfort when you can no longer do the job you love, and every daily activity causes constant physical pain. No amount of money will ever compensate for that."

Ms Lewis still has pain in her neck and arm. She also suffers nightmares and flashbacks of the attack. Ms Keates added: "I would like to think lessons can be learnt from Sharon's experience but unfortunately our casework shows they will not. Every day, some teachers are at risk because pupils who have a history of violence and aggression are not properly risk-assessed, and preventive measures are not put in place. Regrettably, there is still a culture in some schools, particularly where pupils have serious behaviour problems, that being assaulted is all part of the job."

Richard Garner: Good way to cut violence in schools

The story of a violent 13-year-old's attack on Sharon Lewis is just the latest to thrust the spotlight on violence and behaviour in schools.

We have seen reports of rival gangs fighting in the school corridors and vandalising buses at one of the new academies in Carlisle. And research commissioned by the NASUWT, published by The Independent last month, showed that some pupils were wearing bulletproof/ stabproof vests to school because of fears of gang violence en route.

Yet yesterday, in his latest report on how to tackle behaviour issues in school, Sir Alan Steer said: "Since commencing this review ... I have seen nothing that would make me question my belief that the great majority of young people and the great majority of schools maintain high standards of behaviour." How can these two pictures be reconciled? Is Sir Alan living in a dream world or are we exaggerating the behaviour problems in schools?

The answer is that the two pictures can be reconciled. It is wrong to think the attack on Ms Lewis is an everyday occurrence. Most schools are well ordered. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, called on all secondary schools to link with police. It is sound advice. I know of one school, George Green on the Isle of Dogs, where stationing an officer has helped to reduce rival gang activity there to a minimum.