Threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour are illegal in the UK. There are numerous laws that explicitly state that it is an offence to intentionally cause alarm or distress to another person, to say nothing of the myriad of laws prohibiting physical assault and criminal damage. For most people, being screamed and sworn at in the work place would be unthinkable. If the incident escalated to physical assault – spitting, hitting, kicking, throwing things, then the expectation would be the swift arrival of the police. Why, then, are our teachers not only excluded from these protections for the most part, but actively held to blame when these crimes are perpetrated against them?
To hold teachers accountable for low level disruptive behaviour in classrooms inhibiting learning is one thing, but under the catch-all term of ‘behaviour management’ is the implied expectation that teachers can and should maintain control of their students, regardless of circumstance.
Pupils are frequently referred to as being unruly, disruptive or having ‘special behavioural needs’. None of these terms address the very real, though inconvenient, truth that in many cases these pupils – as defined by UK law – are criminally dangerous. We, as a nation, do not like to think of our youth as criminals; it is far easier to label them misunderstood or lacking discipline but this nomenclature not only fails to recognise the true extent of the problem, it absolves pupils of responsibility for their behaviour, placing the blame on the teachers who either misunderstand or fail to discipline.
A recent survey by the teaching union ATL found that over 80% of teachers cite a desire to make a difference or help young people as their primary reason for entering education. The Oxford Dictionary defines teaching as imparting knowledge or instructing someone. When teachers enter education as NQT’s many consider ‘to teach’ to be synonymous with ‘to inspire’, ‘to shape’ and ‘to develop’ but the stark reality is that ‘to teach’ is considered more and more to include ‘to police’ and ‘to parent’.
The NASUWT have reported that more than 1 in 5 teachers have been a victim of physical assault at work. In the 2013/14 academic year 1,879 physical assaults against teachers in Scotland were recorded in just 14 local authorities. Alongside statistics that claim over seventy percent of incidents go unreported by teachers who feel they will be blamed, this is an alarming number.
According to the DfE’s own statistics, in the academic year 2011/12 pupils were suspended 16,970 times for physical assault against an adult in English state schools. Of this number only 550 or just over 3% were excluded from school, essentially leaving 97% of teachers in the position of having to continue to teach their attackers. Head Teachers who want to implement a zero tolerance policy on violence are finding their hands tied by local authorities and government targets that want to see fewer pupil exclusions, not more.
Disturbing as these statistics are, they only cover the tip of the ice berg for teachers. While physical assault remains relatively rare, verbal assault is a daily occurrence for many teachers and the shroud of perceived anonymity has led to an exponential increase in online abuse, with 44% of teachers surveyed by the NASUWT reported having insulting comments posted about them on websites by parents, and over 90% reporting abuse on social media by pupils.
This kind of online abuse should be covered by the Malicious Communications act but instead teachers are being coached in ‘online safety’ and being instructed to build education on cyber bullying into curriculums; yet another example of illegal behaviours being excused and teachers being told they, themselves, need to address the problem.
The teaching union ATL calls for schools to ensure that all assaults against teachers – physical and verbal – are reported to the police with a view to prosecution. Further, they specify that the school should ensure that the assaulted teacher is not asked to teach or supervise the pupil if they are permitted to return to school.
Despite these recommendations, teachers are increasingly expected to ‘put up and shut up’ by school administrations focussed on targets and their school’s reputation. The toll of sustained daily abuse coupled with a lack of support from senior management and a pervasive culture of blaming teachers for badly behaved pupils can be devastating. 84% of teachers have reported that their job has impacted negatively on their health and wellbeing with 11% citing work related stress and anxiety as causing the breakdown of their personal relationships and nearly 2% of teachers resorting to self harm.
It is little wonder that more and more teachers are leaving the profession within a year of qualifying. We are sending our teachers into all too regularly combative situations with little legal recourse and no protection. With a rhetoric discussing failing schools and failing teachers, we are indulging in what can only be described as victim blaming as bad behaviour results in poor lesson observations and performance management for teachers. Until teachers are able to feel safe in their jobs and able to report abuse without fear of reprisal they will remain the hidden victims of bad behaviour in our schools.