In early spring 2017, I started my role as a Southampton District Branch’s Local Organiser. I was drafted in to pick up on some schools organising, and begin a project recruiting and organising in care.
As I was new to the role, and believed organising in schools to be slightly easier than care, I followed the path of least resistance and set about updating the Branch’s mapping.
I managed too book visits to over 30 of the 74 schools in the area, and spent three months making a couple of visits a week. Aside from some early starts, the best times to visit were 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 more miss than hit.
I replenished the member numbers lost through a lack of workplace engagement, and started to build a picture of the issues facing our members in schools. The issues could be split roughly into three groups: those caused by 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.
The latter stood out mostly as it was a pure shock to me. The stories I was being told – repeatedly – were awful. Reports of both physical and verbal abuse – of bites, kicks, punches, racial slurs, full filing cabinets upended on staff nearing retirement age. 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 titled 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 problem was a lack of support after the fact. Reports of management uselessness ranged from minor incompetence (inadequate policies and reporting processes) to victim blaming and threats (dissuading staff from reporting incidents, placing blame for pupil violence on actions of staff).
Members desperately needed information on their rights, and management responsibilities, in the aftermath of these incidents.
To ensure the document was member-led, I put together a survey which had a decent response rate. The headline figures were, by then, unsurprising. 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. The disparity in experiencing and receiving imply that members are less likely to view their own experiences as inappropriate, while seeing the experiences of colleagues as worse – though they are likely exactly the same.
To make sense of the culture that creates this attitude, we can apply the Overton Window. While traditionally a model for public opinion when setting state policy, it can also be a good visual aid for organisers and officers across a variety of issues.
The model above shows how we can organise to change attitudes in the workplace (on any issue, but specifically here we are discussing violence and abuse). You will often find that, due to being simply ground down, the window is currently far to the right for a lot of our members and part of your organising will involve assessing the workplace culture and moving it to the left.
Back to the survey, 93% of reported incidents were involving a pupil, with only one respondent experiencing violence and abuse from a parent. Interestingly, 75% reported that they were satisfied with the school’s policies that cover violence and abuse, and approximately 60% placed their employer in the upper 50% for doing everything in their power to keep them safe. However, there was still a significant minority of respondents that were unhappy with their treatment by management – a significant enough figure for us to take action.
Once a final draft of the Reporting Violence and Abuse in Schools document was created, I sent it to all stewards and workplace contacts in our Branch with the question “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?” With minor corrections and suggestions, the answer from all was a yes.
Now that the document is out in the wild, it has been reported as helpful and useful. In hindsight, I would have liked to have included more information on how to report, as this is a recurring issue in some schools. Organisers should 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. Sharing best practice is vital.
Southampton District Branch