School support staff 'experience the most abuse from pupils'

Unison says lowest paid, mostly female, support staff are expected to deal with the most challenging behaviour.

School support staff experience the most abuse from pupils, says Unison iStock

New research shows school support staff suffer the biggest impact of poor pupil behaviour, according to Unison.

The warning from the trade union comes just days after ministers were told Scotland’s schools are dealing with a “rising tide of disruptive behaviour.

A major new study revealed more than one in ten staff have had to deal with physical violence from a pupil towards them or another classroom worker in the last week.

The Behaviour In Scottish Schools Research found that just over a third of staff had experienced general verbal abuse from students in the past seven days, while 16% had had to deal with physical aggression, and 11% saw physical violence towards themselves or other staff.

In addition, two-thirds (67%) of the teachers and school support workers surveyed said they had encountered general verbal abuse between pupils within the past week, while 59% had dealt with physical aggression between students and 43% had experienced physical violence between pupils in the classroom in the last week.

Unison says the government report supports what union members working in schools have been telling officials – that the lowest paid, mostly female, support staff are the ones who are expected to deal with pupils with the most challenging behaviour.

The government report is based on surveys and interviews with head teachers and teachers, and focus groups with classroom-based support staff. 

Lorraine Thompson, Unison Scotland chair of the education issues group, said: “No one should have to face violence and abusive behaviour at their work and if they do they need to be properly supported to deal with it. 

“Yet in our schools in Scotland, it is the lowest paid mostly women support staff who deal with challenging and disruptive behaviour every day. 

“The money announced by the Scottish government is wholly inadequate for the challenges their own research outlines. We need substantial investment not only in our schools but also the wider support teams that children and young people need.”

Staff and teachers from 525 schools across Scotland were involved in the research, with almost a quarter (24%) reporting abuse from pupils to fellow students with additional support needs within the past week.

Meanwhile, 18% said they had encountered sexist abuse or harassment and homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse towards other pupils in the last seven days, with 17% having dealt with racist abuse towards other pupils in the same time frame.

Kay Sillars, Unison Scotland regional manager, said: “Unison have consistently raised violence and abuse of school support staff with employers and government.

“Most support staff experience difficult behaviour every day. It is not acceptable, now that we have the evidence to back up what we know is a growing problem we need to see government funding and action to help schools deal with it.

“Support staff need to be provided with training, support and time to fully participate in developing strategies to support the pupils they are working with. But we also need increased investment in youth clubs, family social work and educational psychiatrists. Unison are raising these findings with the government.”

Education secretary Jenny Gilruth has announced £900,000 of cash for councils to help train school staff to deal with “the new challenges in our schools post-Covid”.

Gilruth, herself a former teacher, promised the new funding following the publication of the report earlier this week.

She told MSPs: “Let me be clear – violence in Scotland’s schools is unacceptable, it is unacceptable for the staff in our schools and for the young people we entrust in their care.

“It is essential that pupils and their families are reassured our schools are safe, consistent learning environments for our young people and for those who work there.”

Meanwhile, Gilruth added that the cost of living crisis meant more children were “going to school hungry”, with youngsters also more likely to be anxious or stressed and then “bring this with them to school”.

She used her statement to Holyrood to encourage school staff “in the strongest possible terms” to come forward and report “all incidents of inappropriate, violent or abusive behaviour in our schools”.

While she accepted doing this would mean the recorded numbers of such incidents would increase initially, she insisted it was “necessary for us to strengthen the evidence base in order to inform improvements”.

But Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy spoke of her “disappointment” with the Scottish Government on the issue.

She said: “Many of the issues mentioned have been known for a long time, so I imagine school staff, pupils and parents will be wondering why the announcement today is for the development of a plan, rather than a plan.

“At a time when leadership is needed, today’s statement feels a bit like the cabinet secretary believes she is a bystander.”

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