Rising Violence in Classrooms

ACP says challenging behaviour requires specialist input.

The Guardian recently ran a story concerning the growing violence being witnessed in classrooms throughout the country, covering a  recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) which showed that four out of 10 teachers had been physically assaulted by children over the previous year. More than three quarters said they had been pushed or shoved, around half were kicked or had had an “object” such as a piece of furniture thrown at them, and more than a third had been punched. Just under half felt pupil behaviour had got worse in the past two years, and the figures back them up. According to the Department for Education, 18,970 pupils at primary and secondary schools were temporarily excluded in 2013-2014 because of physical attacks on teachers and other adults – obstruction, jostling, biting, kicking, hair-pulling – compared with 17,190 the previous year. (The number of permanent exclusions for physical assault against an adult also increased, from 490 to 550.) Three quarters of trainee and newly qualified teachers have considered leaving the profession, according to a 2015 ATL survey. Of those, 25% said challenging pupil behaviour was the reason. Meanwhile, a 2014 joint survey by the ATL and ITV News found that more than a quarter of teachers had faced aggression from a student’s parents or carers in the past year.

While this trend is extremely disturbing, violence perpetrated by children is a complex issue that may arise due to many different factors. Mark Oldham, the 32-year-old headteacher at Millgate, a school for boys aged 11 to 16 with social, emotional and mental health problems in Leicester, notes that many of his 66 pupils will have witnessed domestic violence, neglect and drug and alcohol dependency. Nearly a quarter are looked after by foster carers or children’s homes. “Whatever people say, it’s hard to be removed from your home,” says Oldman. “The threshold for being taken into care is now so high, some of the stuff kids here would have seen will be damaging probably for the rest of their lives. Some students have “additional complexities, autism, ADHD, ODD – that is a new diagnosis, oppositional defiant disorder.” Additionally, Julian Elliott, a former teacher who is now a professor of educational psychology and principal at Collingwood College, Durham University, is worried by children who have failed to achieve a secure attachment to a parent or adult caregiver. “Where you have attachment disorders, you have massive problems,” he says, “and with the breakdown of the family there are an increasing number of children who have failed to make these attachments because their family is in chaos.”

Naturally, with the escalation of violence, particularly the risk of knife related attacks, teachers want meaningful solutions to this problem in order to feel safe in their own classrooms. However, while there is much debate on how to tackle violence against teachers, many do not believe that exclusion is the solution or effective. Oldman, who has been attacked numerous times by students, tries to build an environment where there are “meaningful consequences” to children’s actions such as apologising to the person attacked instead of merely being excluded, which his students see as a reward. There is evidence that his tactics seem to work as was shown with Andrew, now 15, who was once a violent student. “Andrew, like a lot of the boys here, is able to recognise when somebody cares, when somebody is willing to make an investment. The period of time when he was consistently attacking me was a period when he was trying to find out whether I was going to be staying or not.” It has now been three years and a half since Andrew had last attacked Oldham.

Essentially, many of the teachers interviewed believe that minor offenses such as swearing, threatening and shoving teachers are not addressed adequately by senior staff at schools- leading to a further escalation in violence because this type of behaviour is not stopped early on and the underlining issues causing this behaviour are not addressed. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL argues that “schools need support from social and health services and parents to deal with the complex issues many pupils face due to chaotic home lives or mental health issues. A lack of funds for social services and child and adolescent mental health services means pupils are at risk and, all too often, school staff are being left to plug the gaps in social care as best they can.”

An ACP member recently commented about challenging behaviour at home see: ACP member gives advice to mother of troubled boy in the Guardian Weekend and argues that worrying behaviour like violence and stealing, can be about a lack of consistent care and boundaries. She also recommends getting professional or specialist help as soon as possible. 

To read the full article about violence in schools, read here.