Last reviewed 2 September 2016

Nigel Baker of Lexicon Employment Law Training highlights some recent developments in the education field.

Rising pupil numbers

The news that schools will need an extra 750,000 places within the next 10 years in order to cope with the high immigrant birth rate has caused concern in some quarters. Secondary school pupils are predicted to rise from 3.04 million in 2020 to 3.3 million by 2025. The implications for staff resourcing and class sizes are significant. Pupil numbers in state schools will increase by 10% from 7.4 million to 8.1 million between the years 2016 and 2025 according to Department for Education (DfE) data. To compound the problem, a quarter of teachers leave the profession in the first three years of their starting work. The cost to the state of initial teacher training has to be factored into the equation. This is £23,000 per trainee and the high drop-out rate results in an average cost of £38,000 being spent for every teacher still in post five years after completing their training.

Although there has been an increase in the number of total teaching staff to 1.4 million including teaching assistants and support staff, representing a rise of 3% in the past year, only 75% of the 503,000 school teachers remained in their post beyond three years. Also, the use of unqualified teaching staff has risen, with 1 in 20 teachers not qualified to degree level in the subjects which they teach.

Role of teachers

In addition to their formal teaching role, teachers also play an important part in guiding pupils’ personal behaviour and attitudes. In acting as role models for adolescents, their teachers can influence pupils’ social norms and interpersonal relationships. This was highlighted by a recent study by Cambridge University which found that having a positive relationship with a teacher at the age of 10 to 11 years can markedly influence developmental behaviour. This had many benefits, including a reduction in aggressive and belligerent behaviour, and the fostering of co-operation and altruism in the pupils.

Sexual and racist misbehaviour at school

Figures obtained by the children’s charity Plan UK reveal that the number of sex crimes reported at UK schools has almost trebled in the last four years, with boys and girls as young as five being accused of carrying out sexual misdemeanours, with similarly young victims. In 2014–15, almost 2000 sexual offences were reported at UK schools, with 29% thought to have been committed by pupils. Two-thirds of the alleged victims were female and 94% of the alleged offences were committed by males. In practice, children under 10 years of age are below the age of criminal responsibility so cannot be charged or prosecuted. However, other non-criminal processes can be instigated in such circumstances.

Racist abuse at school continues to occur. This is defined as derogatory racist statements, racist bullying, graffiti, taunting and harassment or swearing that can be attributed to racist characteristics. According to the New Schools Network, 20 pupils are excluded each school day for racially abusing classmates. Such misconduct has risen by a fifth between 2009 and 2015, during which period there have been 27,000 exclusions for racial abuse. In 2014, there were 4000 cases which were serious enough to warrant fixed or permanent exclusion from school.

Teachers and terrorism

Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, schools are under a statutory duty “to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit. Schools should be safe spaces in which children and young people can understand and discuss sensitive topics, including terrorism and the extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology, and learn how to challenge these ideas. The Prevent duty is not intended to limit discussion of these issues. Schools should, however, be mindful of their existing duties to forbid political indoctrination and secure a balanced presentation of political issues”. (paragraph 64 revised Government Guidance for England and Wales July 2015).

The government initiative to try to steer children away from radicalisation began in 2011 and has been controversial in the way in which school staff are expected to play a direct role and report their concerns. Where a member of school staff has a concern about a pupil, they should be dealt with in the first instance under the school’s normal safeguarding procedures. In Prevent, priority areas liaison should be made with the local authority’s Prevent lead. The local police force and the DfE are both able to deal with concerns about extremism directly in non-urgent cases (see DfE Departmental Advice for Schools on the Prevent Duty ref DFE-00174-2015).

According to figures released in 2016 by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in England and Wales, 1041 schoolchildren were referred for de-radicalisation in 2015 through Channel, which is part of the government’s Prevent strategy. This compares with only nine when the scheme was first introduced in 2012.

Unprofessional personal relationships

While it is good to cultivate positive relationships with pupils, the boundary line for unwise, unprofessional or illegal associations should stand out like a beacon for staff. Despite this, every year the professional conduct panel of the National College for Teaching and Learning has to take disciplinary action against teachers who stray in more ways than one. A recent example concerned the experienced female Head of science at a co-educational secondary school who was banned indefinitely from the teaching profession for engaging in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old pupil at the school.

In a separate case, the dangers of entering relationships with older pupils who may have left school but remain on the roll were highlighted. The 27-year-old teacher had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old pupil after her exams had finished and who was no longer attending school. However, she remained technically a pupil until the end of her academic year, unbeknown to the teacher. The pupil in question was a vulnerable individual who had family problems and the teacher had previously helped her with pastoral issues. The disciplinary panel accepted that there was no grooming or premeditation in the teacher’s conduct and also his plea that he genuinely believed that she had left school at the time the relationship began. Nevertheless, he was prohibited from teaching for a four-year period after which he can apply to have the order set aside.

Pressure on body image

The pressure on schoolchildren relating to their perceived negative body image was formerly felt predominantly by girls but a recent study by Credos has found that it is as much a problem for boys as for girls, with more than half of secondary schoolboys considering that eating disorders, dieting and extreme exercising were gender-neutral issues. Generally, teachers and parents have suggested that it is harder to spot body image issues among boys, and 56% of boys said that they found it difficult to talk to teachers about their looks. 23% of boys said that they believed there was a perfect male body. There is much banter and bullying among boys, who are expected to shrug it off but 15% of those bullied said they would consider resorting to steroids or skipping meals. There has been a 27% increase in the number of males diagnosed with an eating disorder since 2000, with age 13 the time when most boys are admitted to hospital. 18% of those who had suffered bullying regarding their body image and appearance said they would consider cosmetic surgery as a solution. It is clear that boys are not immune to the advertising campaigns and image pressures felt by girls for many years and such issues may manifest themselves at school and ought to be identified by teachers with support and practical help.