UK teachers facing violence and verbal abuse from students

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One of the largest teaching unions in the UK has released the results of a survey it conducted of 5000 teachers. It found that., over the last 12 months, 86% had been sworn at and 42% had been threatened. In terms of physical violence:

“Nearly a third (29%) of teachers have been hit, punched or kicked, and 39% have been shoved or barged. 7% have been spat at, and 3% have been head-butted. Over a quarter (27%) report having had their property damaged.”

More than 8 in 10 teachers said this affected their morale, as you can probably imagine that it would. More than half said they were made to feel to blame for behaviour issues, presumably by their school leadership, and nearly half said that physical and verbal abuse in their schools were expected as ‘part of the job’.

This is clearly a self-selecting group who were motivated to answer the survey, but 29% of 5000 is still an awful lot of teachers reporting being hit, punched or kicked.

Student behaviour is the Cinderella issue in education. Teachers may avoid mentioning it, particularly if they feel they will be blamed for it themselves. When they decide to leave the profession, they may instead focus on reasons involving workload or other sources of pressure. Yet, with the anonymity provided by a survey, they can tell it like it is.

From an Australian perspective, it is an interesting issue to contemplate given evidence from PISA suggests that, if anything, behaviour is even worse in Australian schools.

Student behaviour therefore should be the subject of urgent research by education academics. Unfortunately, the prevailing philosophy in education faculties is one in which children are always blameless and any and all misbehaviour is the communication of an unmet need. This therefore involves a certain amount of glossing over reality and is probably a reason why teachers tell me their training was so weak on the issue.

It is also interesting to contrast the work of the NASUWT with another UK union, the NEU. I was tempted to write ‘another UK teaching union’ but I have been corrected on Twitter by a member of its national executive – the NEU is the National Education Union and not a teaching union, apparently.

The NEU’s recent conference was an eccentric event and the organisation is looking increasingly like Momentum, the UK political pressure group notable for supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. This is the conference where Corbyn pledged to abolish SAT testing, with no clear plan put forward for an alternative. It is also the conference where delegates voted for a motion condemning supposedly ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies in schools.

Exactly what behaviour should teachers be tolerating and which union has their interests at heart?


5 thoughts on “UK teachers facing violence and verbal abuse from students

  1. It’s a sad state of affairs, with many schools under pressure to keep kids in lessons and not exclude – no matter what – leading to low standards of behaviour that hurt the kids as much as the teachers and classmates and ethos of learning and safety overall. At the same time, there’s been a lot of negative press surrounding schools who are overly strict and have said zero tolerance policy. Therefore, it’s likely that school leaders feel stuck between a rock and a hard place – unable to do right, no matter what they do.

    Personally, I feel like a lot of my own training focused heavily on behaviour management, but it really doesn’t matter how effective your own practice is, if you’re not supported by a school system that works. There has to be a balance between supporting kids, including those with behavioural needs, and the schools’ duty of care to the safety and wellbeing of all students and staff.

    1. I fully agree that even the best teachers struggle if they’re not supported by SLT, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘behavioural needs’. It is instructive to examine schools like Michaela, which attract a disproportionate amount of publicity for their strict behaviour policies, but almost none for their use of a knowledge-rich curriculum, whole-class interactive teaching, and regular knowledge checks. When pupils are learning, they identify with their teachers and their school, so sanctions are seldom needed.

      Of course, children who’ve spent years in the fog of the confusion, boredom and humiliation engendered by ineffective pedagogies may take a little time to get the message, but in my experience of teaching literacy skills to SEN pupils, it is extremely rare to meet pupils who need specialist support. For those that do, mainstream schools are possibly the worst place to be–they don’t have the staffing ratios or the skills needed to cope with complex behavioural issues.

      1. I completely agree that prevention is always better than cure, meaning that if you plan and teach a well structured engaging and inclusive lesson, then most children will fall in line.

        But as you said, many schools are facing some very big problems right now and simply can’t cope with the increase in pupils with more extreme SEND needs coming into mainstream (I agree that mainstream isn’t the right setting for many, but many parents opt for this anyway.) So many schools are struggling thanks to the massive drop in funding which obviously has an impact on support for these children and classes overall. Then throw in large classroom sizes, mentally ill teachers and massive workload which when l last checked, showed 47% of teachers don’t plan to be in the job within 5 years….

        The way it currently stands, the UK system isn’t working for SEND or mainstream kids, or staff.

  2. Please, you really should visit Michaela. I grant you that they have a boot camp in July for new entry which enables them to focus on pupils who apparently have “extreme SEND”, but in my very extensive experience teaching such pupils, only a tiny handful had the slightest behavioural problems once their literacy skills were near norms. Likewise, Michaela’s first priority with SEND pupils is to give them intensive remedial instruction in literacy skills.

    I know it’s very hard for teachers to understand this when they’ve been brainwashed into thinking that rote-learning is the next thing to child-abuse, but I’ve also worked on youth and probation projects where by far the most common offence was arson or vandalism of their schools. Once they were no longer expected to ‘direct their own learning’ but were taught practical skills with direct instruction, they were no trouble whatever. I even hired some of them to work on my own property and got to know them quite well–they were normal kids outside a school.

    This is from a 1974 American study, but the profession has been reluctant to acknowledge its findings:

    “The present study was unsuccessful in attempting to correlate aggression with age, family size, or number of parents present in the home, rural versus urban environment, socio-economic status, minority group membership, religious preference, etc. Only reading failure was found to correlate with aggression in both groups of delinquent boys. It is possible that reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive. I am speaking of assault, arson, sadistic acts directed against peers and siblings, major vandalism, etc”.

  3. Last summer I attended a PD program that included a small group interview with Dr. Lieny Jeon at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Jeon is working on early years’ teacher stress and depression. She cited two studies which help inform her work: 24% of Head Start (an early years’ govt funded program in the US) teachers show depressive symptoms, while 50% of all K-12 teachers exhibit some level of stress and 25-30% are highly stressed.

    The chief stressors in all of K-12 are: 1. classroom behavior; 2. relations with administrators; 3. pay.

    If interested, her publications are listed here:

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