Physical and verbal attacks on teachers is on the increase, and lockdown might have made things worse.

As schools slowly return to normality after two long-term lockdowns, the number of pupil suspensions due to attacks on staff is increasing year-on-year. 

The Department of Education’s most up-to-date statistics available (for school years 2017/2018, 2018/2019 and 2019/2020) show that verbal attacks on staff was the reason for twenty three percent of all school suspensions. This makes it the third most prominent cause of suspensions, behind attacks on other pupils and persistent breaking of school rules.

The total suspensions over three years shows that approximately one quarter are due to attacks on staff members

Stephen McCord is the president of the Ulster Teachers’ Union and, as former Head of science at Larne High School, has experienced the problem from both a teacher’s and a union representative’s perspective.

““There has been an increase in calls to the union with regard to things that are happening in the classroom. We’ve always had incidents with children.

 We’ve always had verbal abuse, physical assault, things like that but there has been an increase over the past 12 months.” He explained.

The information provided by the Department of Health does not include lockdown periods due to Covid-19, but he believes they have been detrimental.

“Part of that may be due to pupils who have been at home, they haven’t had social interaction, and then going back. Some pupils are having difficulty re-establishing routines” Mr McCord said.

The percentage of suspensions due to verbal or physical attacks on staff has increased year-on-year

Since 2017, the percentage of suspensions in Northern Irish schools due to attacks on staff has also increased.

Leigh McKay has been a teacher for thirty years, and has witnessed aggression first-hand at Ballyclare Secondary School, where she is Head of media studies.

 “We have had way more suspensions, definitely. I had a pupil, with a younger teacher, and he punched a filing cabinet, put a massive hole in a metal filing cabinet.

There was another kid, and they had to tie him to the Bannister, he was just so wild”

She speculates that the growing prevalence of technology in the classroom is a problem, with the shift in attitude post-Covid making things worse.

“They want their phone, they want to get out to the toilet, and it’s when you say “no” that they get aggravated, that’s when you can see they’re struggling to maintain any kind of order” she stated.

Stephen has had a similar experience, and commented that younger children have been  acting more  aggressively in recent months and years.

“We are definitely getting an increase in calls from primary schools,[students] aged between seven and nine who are, for whatever reason they are lashing out at staff, at cooks, at principles at classroom assistants, they are throwing things, they are assaulting people”.

The issue of attacks on staff is also prevalent through the whole of Northern Ireland, with schools averaging three or four suspensions for this reason each year.

As many as four students per school on average are suspended each school year for staff attacks.

Stephen explained the protocol for reporting these incidents:

“When a member of teaching staff reaches out to the union, we were probably the last port-of-call.

Where they’re verbally assaulted, physically assaulted they would probably have gone through hall the school’s internal disciplinary procedures, they’d have gone to the head of department or vice principle.

Very often they would have reached out to us because something’s not happening and I would say that we have had an increase in calls to the union”.

Leigh concludes that a school setting can often be the only opportunity for young students to socialise adequately.

“They missed out on so much socialization, and that’s vital for pupils at that age.

There are pupils who don’t have as much social support, that’s where the anger builds up and that’s where you get this attitude to school that’s just not positive.

The only support some pupils get is when they come into school. They don’t have any at home, they don’t have any guidance or drive to make them do what they’re supposed to be doing. That really upset me.”

A map of schools with the most serious issues of staff attacks – where there have been over 30 suspensions in one single school year- shows that the problem is most common at schools in and around Belfast and Derry/Londonderry

Schools in and near Cities have higher cases of verbal and physical attacks on staff

Stephen expressed frustration that this kind of information is not readily shared.

” What the unions do call for is facts and figures every year if a teacher is assaulted in the classroom. they’re meant to report it to the principal, the chairman of the board of governors.

That data’s meant to be collected and I don’t ever recall seeing any evidence of that. Any facts and figures. That’s something that should be given out at least once a year, we never see it”.

Leigh, meanwhile, worries that the increase in anger among students will have serious long-term consequences for schools.

 “I think teachers are going to burn out very, very soon. I think you’ll find quite a lot of teachers wanting to retire, quite a lot of teachers giving up maybe not teachers not wanting to go into [teaching].

So, I just wonder the effect it’ll have on teaching on a whole. Teaching staff are, I think, at rock bottom”.