Last reviewed 10 June 2022

There was a time when it was inconceivable that school staff would need to be able to defend themselves in the event of a violent assault. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Michael Evans looks at ways of ensuring that schools can be safe working environments for staff.

A disturbing picture

According to the Health and Safety Executive’s 2019–20 Crime Survey for England and Wales, teachers and school support staff experience the sixth highest level of violence in the workplace.

Workplace violence is defined by the HSE as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”. It goes on to say that this can include verbal abuse or threats, as well as physical attacks.

In an April 2021 survey conducted by the NASUWT, 6% of surveyed teachers reported that they had been subjected to physical violence by pupils during the previous year, 10% had received threats of physical violence and 38% had been subjected to verbal abuse. Fewer than half of the teachers who had faced some kind of abuse felt that their school had dealt with the situation in a satisfactory manner.

Abuse and threats of abuse are not confined to pupils of secondary age. There is plenty of evidence of violent behaviour by children in primary schools. Initially this may start as a child-to-child spat, but once teachers become involved it easily spills over to violence against them.

A problem too serious to ignore

Clearly this is a serious problem that needs to be more effectively addressed.

There is an urgent need for local authorities, governing bodies, academy trusts, proprietors and all other employers to conduct risk assessments where they should:

  • consider the risk of violence to their staff

  • consider the stress caused by risk of violence and assault

  • consider steps needed to remove the risk

  • where removal is not possible, consider ways in which risk may be reduced by changing working practices or by introducing appropriate protective or supportive measures.

Violence outside the classroom

Of course, the risk of violence is not necessarily confined to the classroom or to the school. Teachers can just as easily be threatened by parents and other adults from the wider community.

Schools need to be aware of the legal remedies that are available to them in order to combat this problem, such as police protocols and the need to report any violent incidents.

Sometimes schools need to deal with abusive or violent visitors. These days many schools have secure entry systems that prevent unrestricted access to the wider building. If there is an enclosed reception area, at least some form of containment is possible. Initially it is important to make every effort to defuse a difficult situation and to ascertain the particular nature of the visitor’s problem, but if the person becomes violent, or threatens violence, then the police should be called using the 999 service.

It is important for administrative staff to receive training in dealing with any such eventuality.

The risks associated with working alone

A further risk for school staff is lone working. A lone worker is defined by the HSE as someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision. In a school this may include someone who works alone for only an hour a day or someone who is alone with a parent, child or member of the public.

Although this is not necessarily dangerous, it can make other risks more serious due to lack of communication and supervision, and the inability to seek immediate help when required.

Lone working risks can include:

  • aggression from students, parents or members of the public in an area of the school that is out of sight or earshot, such as working with a student in a tutorial room or being alone in a classroom with parents during a consultation evening

  • aggression from a parent during a home visit.

Although there is no legal requirement for specialised lone worker training, the HSE says that staff should still receive training, supervision and support that should include “adequate and reliable means of communication and a way to call for help”.

Ways of staying in contact with lone workers can include:

  • workers providing regular updates via call, text or email

  • supervisors regularly “checking in” using call, text or email

  • supervisors making physical checks by means of regular visits.

It is important for schools to have a lone worker policy. This should make clear to staff how to behave, what precautions they need to take and what to do in an emergency. Some schools provide staff with a lone working device or panic button that can summon help in the event of an emergency. If so, staff should be trained to use this correctly.

Where it is not considered to be safe for staff to meet with parents or members of the public when working alone, meetings should take place during school hours or in close proximity to other members of staff.

Self-protection

When the worst comes to the worst, teachers should know how to defend themselves and there are many excellent courses on self-defence that a school can arrange as part of its professional development provision.

Often a “situation” arises following a dispute between pupils. A teacher has a duty of care to prevent pupils from harming each other. Under s.93 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, all members of school staff have a legal power to use reasonable force to control or restrain pupils, but care should be taken not to become a victim.

The golden rule is always to try to defuse the situation before it reaches that far.

Members of school staff in danger of assault by an angry pupil or adult have every right to defend themselves, but they should at all times endeavour to stay calm and be aware of the need to keep their reaction to the minimum. Over-reaction might lead to a prosecution for assault.

Addressing workplace violence

When schools are addressing workplace violence control measures, the following questions are among those that should be asked.

  • Do health and safety policies include procedures to deal with workplace violence?

  • Are risks associated with verbal abuse and physical assault covered?

  • Are there suitable and sufficient violence prevention controls?

  • Is there someone responsible for violence prevention?

  • Have high-risk locations been identified?

  • Is there an established procedure for reporting violent incidents to the police or requesting police assistance?

  • If the risk assessment justifies lone working, are there facilities for staff to raise an alarm if they or a colleague comes under threat?

  • Do staff know what to do in the event of hearing the alarm?

Summing up

Teaching is a very rewarding profession, and a school should always be a place of security. School staff should at all times be free from the risk of violence or assault, but in the event of a developing violent situation, they should be fully aware of any procedures and strategies that should be followed.