The fatal stabbing of Ann Maguire in her Leeds classroom has shocked and horrified us all. As her family, colleagues and students are left to grieve, we as a sector are left with many questions.
How could this have happened? Why did a student have a knife in a classroom? How many weapons are there in schools? Do secondary schools need to introduce US-style security scanners? Is there a problem in primary schools? Are teachers adequately trained to deal with such threats? Ultimately, what we are really asking is: are schools safe?
Following the incident in Leeds, much research, many surveys and various experts have been presented in the media to explain the threat to teaching staff, Teacher Support Network included. We appeared on a number of news programmes talking about our research on the issue, which revealed that just under half (48 per cent) of teachers who responded to our 2010 behaviour survey had been assaulted or threatened with assault.
The Sun reported “21,000 attacks on staff since 2012”, which translates as 55 assaults a day on average. Sky News research found that “almost 1,000 pupils were caught with weapons including guns, axes and a meat cleaver in schools in the last three years”. Meanwhile, The Telegraph stated “students were expelled or suspended 17,520 times for physically assaulting adults in 2011/12”.
Anecdotally, many of the teachers we have spoken to in the last weeks have told us their experiences of violence in schools: the teacher who was throttled by her student and left for dead, the teacher who needed hospital treatment after her arm was hoisted behind her back, and the teacher who had a knife drawn on her by a student 20 years ago.
Yet are schools as dangerous as these reports and stories appear to suggest? Perhaps not. While 21,000 attacks on staff is clearly unacceptable, in reality this represents two per cent of the entire UK teaching workforce. Furthermore, if we say that there are eight million students in UK schools, then weapons were found on 0.01 per cent of them.
Realistically, teachers are more concerned about low-level behavioural issues than violence in schools. This is not meant to be disrespectful, nor will it come as any consolation to the family, friends and students of Mrs Maguire, nor should it, but it does offer some perspective on the scale of the problem.
Thankfully, violence on the scale of the incident in Leeds is very rare. Mrs Maguire is purported to be the first teacher killed in a British classroom. The last incident of this nature was headteacher Philip Lawrence in 1995, who was fatally stabbed while trying to break up a fight outside of his school.
Having said that, it is extremely worrying that students feel the need to physically intimidate and assault teachers – or anyone working or learning in schools – with weapons. The police, community leaders, parents, governors and headteachers must work together to prevent violence directed at teachers. There must be a zero tolerance approach to any weapons being brought into schools to ensure that teachers and pupils feel safe in the school environment.
It is positive and welcome that in the past weeks, it is not just the education sector that is beginning to ask these questions. The public, the media and those that govern us are beginning to seriously examine exactly what teachers are expected to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
This can only be a positive step forward, not only so that similar tragedies can be avoided, but to make the public aware of the complexities and challenges faced by teachers, and the need to respect, protect and enhance their professionalism and status in society.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).