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Desks and chairs

Behaviour in Scotland’s Schools

Mr C for Common Weal

Johnstone High, Taylor High, Coltness High. What do all these schools have in common?

They have all had instances of pupil-on-staff violence in the last 6 months. And these are just three incidents that made it to the national press.

A recent study by the NASUWT found that 93% of their members reported a significant increase in pupils exhibiting physically violent and abusive behaviours towards staff in the last 12 months. 95% reported an increase in verbal abuse in the same period, including threats of physical harm (including being shot), racial slurs, and sexual insults.

Back in May, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth commented in Parliament about the increasing levels of abuse. She stated that while this behaviour is unacceptable, it was a clear sign of changing cultures in post-Covid society. She also commented that other factors were an influence of this change, including Additional Support Needs and goings-on outside the school grounds, such as in the wider community and at home.

This is undoubtedly true. Many issues that are driving up instances of violence against teachers are from outside the school grounds: poverty, gang culture, drugs, alcohol, family circumstances among others, which have seeped into schools since lockdown, as digital learning blurred the lines between school and home. But I’m very much of the opinion that violence in schools is also being aggravated by two broad factors that are not talked about all that often in the wider media: lack of discipline, and lack of parental responsibility.

Lack of Discipline

Every day, teachers face increased abuse and violence in the workplace. And yet, because we’re dealing with young people, we’re expected to put on a brave face and continue with the job. Quite often, this means even having to teach a class the perpetrator of the abuse is in. In no other walk of life would the victim be expected to continue to work so closely with the perpetrator once an issue has been reported.

I use the word ‘victim’ very deliberately. Teachers are being victimised. There is no other way to put it. Many of my colleagues have expressed that they don’t feel safe in the workplace, wondering if they are going to be assaulted if they turn down a particular corridor, or say the wrong thing to a particular child.

In my opinion, a big part of us feeling unsafe in the workplace is due to inadequate management of behaviour. Very often, the consequences these pupils face for violent or aggressive incidents are light; a one or two-day’s suspension, or an alternative timetable where they sit in an office. They are assigned work to complete under these circumstances, but whether or not they do so can often go unchecked.  

Let me be very clear: I’m all for the nurturing approach in schools. Understanding of support needs as well as the emotional and social circumstances in a pupil’s life can sometimes explain their behaviour and provide the groundwork to addressing it.

But I also believe in discipline.

If a young person does something wrong and can be nurtured to help them overcome the issues that lead to their behaviour: great. If they can’t, or won’t, then they need to be disciplined, whether that’s at school or home. Learning that actions have consequences, a basic mechanism of modern society, is key to the emotional and social development of young people. Sending them home to sit in front of the TV or computer for a day, or sitting in an office pretending to work, is not adequate.

There needs to be major systemic change within local authorities and high schools to make behaviour management more meaningful and effective.

Lack of Parental Responsibility

“He’s just a bad wee boy.”

This was the excuse a parent once gave to one of my colleagues to justify the behaviour of her son at school. For me, this hits the nail on the head about part of the problem we teachers face: some parents just don’t care.  

While the vast majority of parents I’ve met in my career have been supportive and understanding, even when it’s come down to issues with misbehaviour. But in recent years, the number of parents who just don’t care about their child’s behaviour is staggering. In mine and my colleague’s experience, this can range from refusing to answer phone calls from Pupil Support, to angry letters and confrontations in the school grounds.

When I was a high school pupil, my parents once got a letter from the school saying I’d misbehaved in class. I was grounded and my gaming console was taken away before I was even allowed to mount a defence. It turned out the letter had been sent in error and my PlayStation privileges were quickly reinstated. If that was to happen now, the parents would march up to the school, demanding an explanation as to why their child was being accused of such things, all the while calling the school all the names under the sun and threating to escalate their complaint to the local authority.

Parents never get the full picture of what their child is like at school, but they always took the word of the teacher, the trusted professional, as the truest account. Now, they often question us at every turn, and encourage their children to challenge us if they feel they’ve been wronged. No, teachers don’t always get it right, sometimes we make mistakes, but if we can’t even get basic respect from parents, what hope do we have of getting respect from their children?

Now, imagine you’ve been assaulted in the workplace by a person you work closely with. You feel violated and embarrassed. You report the assault to your managers, who are so rushed off their feet dealing with other issues in the workplace, that by the time it is addressed, you’ve already had to meet with this person again to continue your work. Your boss eventually gets round to dealing with your issue and suspends the perpetrator for one day. They’ll be back to work before the week is over.

Then, the next day, a close relative of the perpetrator comes to your place of work, demanding to speak with you or your boss to explain why you forced their loved one to assault you.

This is the reality of teaching in Scotland right now.

The Scottish Government, and by extension local authorities, need to address this issue head on by offering more support for teachers and schools: more funding to help tackle the plethora of support needs, more detailed guidance to support teachers who experience violence in the workplace, and stricter consequences for pupils (and parents) who abuse staff.

Because one thing is a certainty: The increase in violence, aggression, and general misbehaviour is driving our schools into the ground, and teachers along with it. Is it any wonder some schools are crying out for teachers, when the ones they do have are used as emotional, and sometimes physical, punching bags?

Mr C is a secondary school teacher in central Scotland. The above views are his own.

6 thoughts on “Behaviour in Scotland’s Schools”

  1. I am surprised Fraser Nelson turned this down. A series of disjointed anecdotes is used to describe the ‘reality of teaching’. This is supposed to be indicative of the country going to hell in a handcart and being worse than ever before; there were never razor gangs and skinheads never ran rampage. This would have gone down well with Spectator readers.

    Of course some of these issues affect some teachers, in some places, some of the time. That has been the case for at least the past two millenia; surely a teacher and the teaching profession has more than this to say about how to tackle this issue.

    1. Sadly, only people who work in schools have any idea of the seismic change that has occurred within a generation. Anyone else still believes that schools must be something akin to their own experience in school – they are not.

      The reality is that the culture has shifted to the point where many ‘educationalists’ (i.e. non teachers who think they know more about teaching than teachers themselves) suggest that teachers are at fault for any disruptive, anti-social or criminal behaviour that pupils commit. ‘If only you could create and deliver really interesting lessons, suitably individualised so that the work was perfectly suited to the abilities of each pupil, then all pupils would be motivated to learn and there would be no behavioural issues’. In other contexts, such an opinion would be described as ‘victim-blaming’.

      So our Trauma-informed teaching profession seeks to understand, empathise, and ‘de-escalate’ those who assault, harass or bully others, while also trying to help the majority who wish to learn to have that opportunity.

  2. 20 years ago my child misbehaved in school , fighting and one incident where he swore at a teacher, and I was supportive by grounding him at home. Eventually an Educational Pyschologist met with us and suggested a plan to improve things. This included teachers providing a ONE sentence comment on his behaviour each day. Teachers refused to do this or any other suggestion due to “lack of resources” . When I asked the LA for help teachers denied they had ever refused to support the plan. I gave up. My son went on to get a 1st class Masters at Oxford in Physics and a PhD.
    Not surprised things are now worse

  3. I have sympathy for the writer and do not doubt the truth about these incidents. Physical assaults on staff remain rare in Scottish schools and, in my experience, are regarded as very serious by management. I certainly have not worked in a school where it would be business as ussual after a short exclusion. What I do see is an increase, post-covid, in verbal abuse of staff and a bigger proportion (still small) of pupils who find it hard to be in a classroom environment. Mobile phone addiction is up (anecdotally) and parents do not always understand why they should not text or call their kids during lesson time. However, well-run schools have a raft of measures and interventions capable of minimising these disruptions with an emphasis on building positive relationships where possible and clear and consistant sanctions when necessary. Where pupils and parents are uncooperative there are often outside agencies like social work and the police doing their bit too. These are challenging times but it is not all doom and gloom.

    1. I’m afraid the idea that social work or the police are ‘doing their bit’ is off the mark. While some of the most violent pupils are usually already known to social work and may already be in the Children’s hearings System/be on Compulsory Supervision Orders, many are not and Social Work generally refuses to get involved in cases unless young people are offending in the community or there are significant Child Protection issues. However, most offending in the community is not formally recorded – partly because the age of criminal responsibility is now 12 (which means that offending by 11 year olds does not result in charges) and even where young offenders are older than 12, there is a presumption against ‘criminalising’ children so charges are often not brought.

  4. An excellent article. Thank you for writing this and publishing it. Absolutely true. I used to teach in England, and on my return to Scotland was absolutely horrified by the routinely appalling behaviour and failure to do anything about it in schools here. This is a national scandal. Look at the work of Tom Bennett on Twitter. This can be sorted. Thank you again.

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