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Unions 2000 Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Teachers sue over violent pupils
Jennifer Bangs at ATL conference podium
Jennifer Bangs says disruptive pupils can wreck their classmates' chances
By Gary Eason at the ATL conference in Belfast

Teachers in England are suing their employers for failing to protect them from increasing violence by pupils, brought about by the government's drive to reduce expulsions.

Parents could also take action if their children are hurt by pupils who were known to be violent but were kept in mainstream classes under the government's new "social inclusion" policy.

Lawyers say parents could also take action if their children's education is being disrupted by other pupils' anti-social behaviour.

A survey of members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in 31 education authorities suggests that some children are becoming more and more abusive and violent because they know they will not be expelled from school.

Delegates at the ATL's annual conference, in Belfast, warned ministers on Wednesday that their policy can put teachers' employers - school heads, governors and local education authorities - in breach of their legal "duty of care".

Audit of violence

One of the proposers of the resolution, Carolyn Dutton, complained about the effects on teachers and pupils of "disturbed and destructively disruptive" children in mainstream classes.

She said there should be an official audit of the effects of the government's policy.

"In a society which is increasingly litigious we must amass proof of intolerable behaviour over many months before our judgement is accepted," she said.

"By then the damage is done."

Local education authorities had statistics on violent assaults but because of current bureaucracy the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, did not get these.

"I want him to, so that he will understand what's happening in our classrooms," she said.

Defiance

The survey of ATL branch secretaries suggests that almost all think pupils have become more defiant since the introduction last summer of the government's new policy - which set out to reduce truancy and exclusions by one third by 2002.

Ninety-seven per cent say there has been an increase in the defiance of students - as shown for example in whether they turn up for detention.

Ninety per cent say there has been an increase in abusive language used by pupils towards staff.

And 58% say the level of violence towards staff and other pupils has gone up.

ATL solicitor Martin Pilkington told journalists the union was pursuing claims for damages on behalf of a number of members.

"Where an employer knows that there's a pupil with a history of seriously disruptive behaviour and introduces that pupil into a classroom, the question then is whether or not it's reasonably foreseeable that somebody is going to suffer a physical injury," he said.

He said the union was going to make its members more aware of its recommendation that they use European health and safety legislation to call for a "safety audit" of the situation.

"It's a very good way of concentrating the mind of the employer," he said.

Industrial action

In her speech to the conference, the ATL president, Jennifer Bangs, noted that teachers in several schools have had to resort to ballots on industrial action to reinforce their refusal to teach particularly violent and disruptive youngsters.

Another union, the bigger NASUWT, has said the same. It has warned that the new rules making it harder for schools to exclude pupils were "wreaking havoc" with school discipline.

Ministers are concerned that expelling pupils risks making them permanently excluded from mainstream society - pushing them into lives of crime.

Ms Bangs says the challenge for all teachers - and for Mr Blunkett - is to stop this trickle of "last resort" industrial action threats from becoming a flood.

Ms Bangs stressed that the vast majority of children were "as well behaved in school or college as any realistic adult, whether teacher or parent, might reasonably expect."

But she said this success "masks all the hour upon hour of energy-draining, confidence-sapping work that goes into containing and maintaining those youngsters whose behaviour is persistently anti-social".

'Small comfort'

"Teachers who actually have to cope with disruption, aggression and violence day in, day out, are little consoled to learn that they are in the minority," she said.

A very few children could - and often did - wreck the chances of the vast majority who wanted to learn.

Ms Bangs acknowledged that many children, such as those with caring responsibilities, succeeded against "almost unimaginable odds".

Social inclusion was a laudable aim, she said.

She had a message for Mr Blunkett, as someone who "could so easily have slid into exclusion and disaffection but is, instead, a shining example of someone who has grappled with his special needs with great courage and outstanding success."

The message was that teachers cannot be expected to solve all society's ills.

Action call

"Too often schools end up as the punch bags of a thoroughly unsatisfactory system where no-one really has the answers but everyone is looking for someone to blame."

The ATL has a four-point plan for inclusive education:

  • an emphasis on behaviour management for trainee teachers
  • money to train serving teachers
  • money to help under-fives who are or might become disruptive
  • locally-based support services for schools.

See also:

19 Apr 00 | Unions 2000
07 Jan 00 | UK Education
07 Jan 00 | UK Education
19 Jan 00 | UK Education
12 Apr 00 | UK Education
15 Mar 00 | UK Education
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