UNISON Southampton District branch tackles violence in schools

Guest blog from UNISON Southampton District Branch Organiser Ben Martin

In early 2017, Southampton District branch employed Ben Martin as an organiser to work in schools and the care sector. This is a guest blog from Ben about how his project is progressing and how the branch has worked to tackle the issue of staff facing violence in schools.

In early spring 2017, I started off my work in the branch by booking visits to as many schools in the Southampton area as possible and I spent my first three months taking the time to make at least a couple of visits a week. Aside from some useful early morning starts, I found the best times to visit was across split lunchbreaks. A lot of school support staff have their own childcare commitments, so trying to get a sizeable group of people before or after their shifts was far definitely more miss than hit.

I started to build up a picture of the issues facing UNISON members in schools. Those issues could be split roughly into three groups: chronic underfunding, academisation, and violence and abuse. The first two often overlap – it’s common for schools that severely lack funding (and this is pretty much every school) to follow the path of hiring freeze > restructure > special measures > academisation.

It was the latter that really stood out though, as it was actually quite shocking to me. The stories I was being told, repeatedly, were awful. Reports of both physical and verbal abuse – of bites, kicks, punches, racial slurs, even full filing cabinets being upended on staff. None of this is exaggeration. One school (a very large primary) reported an average of three incidents, per staff member, per week. There are around 50 Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) at the school. When averaged out across a 39-week academic year, that’s aver 5,000 incidents in one academic year, in one school. And that’s not counting teaching staff.

UNISON’s existing guidance on the matter is a comprehensive and useful document, including Managing Difficult Behaviour in Schools: A Practical Guide (online catalogue 22970 3534). It is written from a preventative viewpoint, and offers tools and techniques for support staff to manage their interactions with pupils. From talking to members, it became clear that, while this piece of work was useful, their most pressing problem was a lack of support after the fact. Issued raised included inadequate policies and reporting processes, and in some cases even dissuading staff from reporting incidents at all.

It seemed pretty clear from the conversations I was having that UNISON members needed more information on their rights, and their employer’s responsibilities, in this whole area.

To test that the issue was more than just the stories I was being told, I put together a survey of schools members in the city. The headline figures confirmed the anecdotal evidence I’d already received. Just shy of 50% of respondents had experienced physical violence in the last year, while over 50% had witnessed colleagues experience it. Figures for verbal abuse were much higher, at 65% and 75% respectively. Interestingly, members’ responses implied they were less likely to view their own experiences as inappropriate, while seeing the experiences of colleagues as worse – though they are likely exactly the same.

93% of reported incidents of violence involved a pupil, with only one respondent experiencing violence and abuse from a parent. Encouragingly the majority of respondents felt their employer was doing everything in its power to keep them safe. However, there was a high level of dissatisfaction with their employer’s actions after an incident of violence had occurred.

This led to the creation of our new branch Reporting Violence and Abuse in Schools document. I am pleased to report that stewards and workplace contacts in our branch are already finding this useful. We asked them, “after reading this document, do you feel that you know what to do in the event of a colleague or yourself experiencing violence and abuse in the workplace?” The resounding answer from UNISON reps was a big ‘yes’.

I hope that this document will now prove useful to activists and members in schools across the South East. In hindsight, I would have liked to have included more information on how to report, as this is a recurring issue in some schools. I would recommend that activists pay particular note to tools such as Behaviour Watch – a third-party reporting tool that bypasses Local Authority Health and Safety reporting. Whether a school is Local Authority controlled, a Free School or Academy, significant incidents should always be reported to the Local Authority.

If anyone should happen to read this that has found their own tools and techniques to resolving issues of violence and abuse in schools, please do get in touch with me. Sharing best practice is vital.