Advice on violence issues in schools and colleges, in particular how this should be tackled by employers, and student behaviour.

Violence in schools and colleges

In Violence at work: a guide for employers the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines workplace violence as: ‘any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work’.  The HSE goes on to say:

‘This can include verbal abuse or threats as well as physical attacks.  Physical attacks can cause anxiety and distress, and in more serious cases, pain, disability or even death.  Serious and persistent verbal abuse may damage worker’s health through anxiety and distress.  In addition, worry about violence at work, even in workers who do not directly experience it, can be a source of stress’

The scale of the problem

The HSE lists those that work in education as one of the occupational groups most at risk from workplace violence. The table below shows the risk of violence at work for employees, reproduced from the 2019-20 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). The results show that teaching and education professionals have a higher than average rate of violence at work.

Across all groups, teachers and support staff have the sixth highest level of violence at work, out of 25 occupational areas. This indicates that the level of violence against educators is higher than in a number of occupational groups including customer service occupations and skilled trades.

% of victims, once or more: 2019/20 CSEW

Assaults

Threats

All violence at work

Teaching and education professionals

1.0

1.4

2.2

All professional occupations

0.7

1.1

1.6

All occupations

0.6

0.8

1.4

Further data on violence towards teachers and staff

A survey by the NASUWT in April 2021 found that schools were failing to support teachers or take action where staff reported incidents of abuse from students.

More than one in 20 teachers (6 per cent) surveyed by the union said they had been subjected to physical violence by pupils in the past year. And one in 10 said they had received threats of physical violence from students, while nearly four in 10 (38 per cent) had been subjected to verbal abuse from those they taught.

Only around four in ten (42 per cent) of those teachers who said they had faced any kind of abuse from a student said their school had dealt with it in a satisfactory manner.

Violence and abuse in schools and colleges - the legal framework

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places a duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health of their employees at work.  This includes taking steps to make sure they do not suffer violence, abuse or stress-related illness as a result of their work.  This statutory regime supplements the ‘common law’ obligations on employers to provide reasonably safe working environments for their employees.  Employers also have a specific duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to undertake risk assessments that seek to identify and eliminate or reduce risks to their employees’ health, safety and welfare. Employers are legally required to consult their employees and their elected representatives about health and safety arrangements, including their procedures for preventing and monitoring violent incidents.

The HSE guidance ‘Violence at work: a guide for employers’ may be useful for safety representatives and employees. Although not specific to schools and colleges, the guide acknowledges that education is one of the most at risk sectors for experiencing violence at work. The word violence refers to verbal abuse and threats as well as physical violence. The guidance sets out a number of steps which can assist with the effective management of violence.

Appendix 1 contains further information on legal remedies for violence or abuse against members of the school/college community.

Taking action on violence, abuse and assaults in schools and colleges

The incidence of violence and assaults on education staff - in addition to the stress arising from working in environments where the fear of violence and assaults exists - are both examples of risks to staff health, safety and welfare which must be assessed and controlled. 

Local authorities, governing bodies, academy trusts and all other employers must:

  • consider the risk of violence and assault on members of their workforce;
  • consider the risk of stress which arises from working in fear of violence or assault;
  • take steps to remove the risk; or
  • where removal of the risk is not possible, reduce the risk by any necessary changes in     working practices or by introducing appropriate protective or supportive measures.

These steps should be addressed via a risk assessment. The risk assessment must be kept under review and updated as necessary. Employers should also monitor the effectiveness of control measures by monitoring incident rates and through engagement with the workforce and their trade union safety representatives.

The HSE has detailed guidance for employers on how to undertake a workplace violence risk assessment.   

Violent incidents involving adults from the wider community

Comprehensive advice on dealing with the risk of violence from outside the premises, such as that perpetrated or threatened by parents or other adults from the wider community, can be found in the archived DfE publication A legal toolkit for schools: tackling abuse, threats and violence towards members of the school community. It is important to note that as this is archived content, it may not reflect current Government policy.

The toolkit provides advice on:

  • legal remedies available to schools, colleges and employers to combat the problem;
  • risk assessments;
  • police-school protocols;
  • the reporting of violent incidents;
  • the formulation of school/college policies and procedures designed to tackle incidents involving abusive, threatening or violent adult visitors.

Although this guidance is aimed at schools, the principles underpinning it can be applied equally to colleges.

Violence involving students

Managing student behaviour

The DfE has guidance on managing student behaviour in schools, including the use of reasonable force, preventing bullying and promoting children and young people’s wellbeing.

Consistent treatment of perpetrators

It is clearly of paramount importance that students exhibiting violent behaviour are treated fairly and equally under the school or college behaviour policy.  Justice must not just be done, but be seen to be done in order to prevent further alienation and disaffection which fuels anti-social and violent behaviour.

Home visits

The NEU has issued guidance on health and safety issues for teachers and staff undertaking home visits, including how to avoid the risk of violence, and what to do if an incident occurs. (See NEU guidance on lone working at https://neu.org.uk/advice/lone-working).

Individual pupil behaviour risk assessments

The measures set out in the guidance above details the ways in which poor pupil behaviour can be tackled through the use of codes of conduct and their accompanying sanctions, including exclusion.

Violent or intimidating pupil behaviour can also be addressed through appropriate health and safety measures in which the risk to staff and pupils of injury and psychological distress can be managed and controlled.  Individual pupil risk assessments can be useful in such situations. Comprehensive NEU guidance on individual pupil behaviour risk assessment is available in the health and safety section of the website.

If problems arise, whether at school/college or employer level, in satisfactorily implementing suitable risk management strategies for tackling violent or intimidating pupil behaviour, in the first instance, members should contact the NEU AdviceLine (in England and Wales) on 0345 811 8111, or NEU Northern Ireland on 028 9078 2020.

Note on data protection

Staff involved in the drawing up of individual pupil risk assessments should be mindful of the Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005 which place a duty on schools to disclose, with a few exceptions, the contents of pupil records to parents and pupils where they make such a request.

Refusal to teach

Except in emergency situations, teachers are likely to be in breach of contract if they refuse to teach students. Industrial action to refuse to teach cannot be taken until relevant procedures, including an industrial action ballot, have been followed and union rules satisfied.

The NEU will protect members where exclusions have been overturned by governing bodies or appeals panels and pupils reinstated. Following appropriate procedures in compliance with legislation and in accordance with the rules of the union, the NEU will consider balloting for industrial action, up to and including strike action, where:

  • The retention of such pupils would disrupt education or threaten the welfare of pupils or staff.
  • The head teacher, governing body or appeal panel refuses to exclude a pupil.

In such circumstances, members should contact the NEU AdviceLine.

Screening and searching students for prohibited items

In England and Wales, the law allows the following: 

  • Schools can require pupils to undergo screening by a walk-through or hand-held metal detector (arch or wand) even if they do not suspect them of having a weapon, and without the consent of the pupils. 
  • Schools’ statutory power to make rules on pupil behaviour, and their duty as an employer to manage the safety of staff, pupils and visitors, enables them to impose a requirement that pupils undergo screening. 
  • Any member of staff can screen pupils. 

If a pupil refuses to be screened, the school may refuse to have the pupil on the premises. Health and safety legislation requires a school to be managed in a way which does not expose pupils or staff to health and safety risks, and this would include making reasonable rules as a condition of admittance. 

If a pupil fails to comply, and the school does not let the pupil in, the school has not excluded the pupil and the pupil’s absence should be treated as unauthorised. The pupil must comply with the rules and attend. 

This type of screening, without physical contact, is not subject to the same conditions as the powers to search without consent. 

Searching with consent

School staff can search pupils with their consent for any item. 

For example, if a member of staff suspects a pupil has a banned item in their possession, they can instruct the pupil to ‘turn out’ their pockets or bag. If the pupil refuses, the member of staff can apply an appropriate punishment as set out in the school’s behaviour policy. Alternatively, staff members who agree to do so, and where authorised by a head teacher, can consider conducting a search without consent, provided the following legal requirements are met. 

Searching without consent

Head teachers and staff authorised by them have a statutory power to search pupils or their possessions, without consent, where they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that the pupil may have a prohibited item. 

Prohibited items are:

  • knives or weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs and stolen items 
  • tobacco and cigarette papers, fireworks and pornographic images 
  • any article that the member of staff reasonably suspects has been, or is likely to be, used to commit an offence, or to cause personal injury to, or damage to property of, any person (including the pupil) 
  • any item banned by the school rules which has been identified in the rules as an item which may be searched for (for instance, laser pens). 

NEU position on screening and searching students

The NEU does not support the routine screening and searching of pupils.  

Such actions are likely over time to undermine the bonds of trust and respect which exist between pupils and school staff and undermine the efforts of school leaders to forge an open, supportive and inclusive school community. Where searching is unavoidable, eg where the consequences of failing to act might place a person or persons at risk of serious harm, NEU health and safety representatives are urged to ensure that members are aware of a number of issues. 

Firstly, searching involves physical contact, which is a highly sensitive issue, potentially exposing staff to the risk of serious injury – particularly if weapons are used against them or pupils lash out in other ways. NEU advice, therefore, is that staff should think very carefully before agreeing to exercise this power, and certainly resist any pressure to do so. 

In relation to searching pupils without consent, while the law allows for this power to be delegated from the head teacher to another staff member, the NEU advises members that they should not agree to undertake this role, due to the potential risks involved.  

In no circumstances can staff be required to search pupils. The NEU will fully support any members that are asked or pressured to undertake such searches but refuse to do so. 

NEU advice for members regarding screening and searching of pupils

Where a member has agreed to search a pupil but is subsequently unsure whether or not it is safe to search them, eg the pupil may violently resist, the NEU advises that the staff member should err on the side of caution and call the police. 

Members should use their professional judgement and avoid using any force in relation to a search. If the member has doubts, or if it becomes clear that force will be needed, the member of staff should end the attempt to search. 

No member of staff should conduct a search without first having received suitable and sufficient training. 

Insurance issues should be carefully considered. School employers should make sure that they are covered, not just for claims by staff who are injured as a result of undertaking searches, but also for claims made against a member of staff who injures a pupil while conducting a search. 

Staff should always be mindful of the pupil’s human rights, personal dignity, health and data protection rights when searching them. School staff, parents and pupils must be assured that an employer’s policies around the use of search powers are both sensible and reasonable. 

The power to search without consent should be seen as a ‘last resort’ and only used if other options have been exhausted. This means that staff should first question a pupil, then, if appropriate, request that the pupil surrenders the item. If this strategy is unsuccessful, the pupil should first be given the opportunity to consent to a search before finally undergoing a search without consent, if it is considered safe to do so. 

Declining to search a pupil does not mean that a member of staff is refusing to follow a reasonable instruction from the head teacher. Agreeing to search one particular pupil does not mean that a member of staff has to agree to search any others. Staff who have accepted the power to search pupils may decide to exercise that power on a case by case basis. This decision will be based on the member of staff’s professional judgement of the circumstances.

Further guidance on this area can be found in Screening and searching pupils for prohibited items.

Incidents in the school/college vicinity

Consideration should also be given to the risk of violent incidents occurring not directly on the premises, but in the wider vicinity, and potentially involving members of the school/college community.  For instance, schools and colleges, particularly in inner city areas, are known to have been affected by knife crime injuries or deaths, often in close proximity to the site. The risk assessment should consider the possibility of such incidents occurring, and whether violent events have previously occurred in the wider community. Reducing the risk of knife crime and violent incidents in the community is likely to involve co-ordinated behaviour with external agencies such as the police, charities and youth groups and the wider community in general. Schools and colleges should be clear about where their remit ends and begins; for instance, it is not the role of staff to monitor public areas outside of the school/college vicinity. If there are concerns about criminal or dangerous activity taking place, the police should be contacted.

If a serious incident does impact the school/college, the following steps should be considered in the aftermath, in order to support pupils, parents and staff:

  • Initially, a rapid response meeting between the school/college and police should be convened – this is particularly important if there is a continuing risk, for instance if the perpetrator is still at large.
  • Counselling should be provided to the whole school/college community (staff, pupils and parents) in the immediate aftermath and ongoing as required. Some larger schools and colleges employ counsellors permanently and this assists with the provision of support, should a crisis occur.
  • Speakers and organisations should be invited into the school/college to take assemblies, provide training etc. for pupils.

Sexual assaults

The risk assessment should also consider whether there is a risk of sexual assault and harassment against staff. Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted conduct that violates an individual’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Such harassment could take the form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can often be the precursor to more serious forms of abuse and violence.  See the NEU’s excellent resource It’s just everywhere for details of how to tackle it.  See also the report on the NUS survey on sexual harassment/violence in FE.

As part of their risk assessment, the employer must assess the risk towards staff of sexual assaults and harassment from members of the school/college community, including employees, pupils, parents and visitors to the premises, and put measures in place to reduce or remove these risks.

If an employee is experiencing any unwanted conduct, even if they are unsure whether it constitutes harassment, it should be reported to the employer at the earliest opportunity. There should be clear procedures for reporting assaults of a sexual nature, and offensive pupil behaviour should be dealt with under the relevant discipline procedure.  Further NEU self-help guidance on sexual harassment is available on the NEU website at neu.org.uk/advice/sexual-harassment.

Dealing with violent incidents

It is essential that suitable arrangements are in place to ensure an adequate response to a violent incident.  This includes:

  • First aid and other emergency medical treatment required by any injured party.
  • The provision of appropriate emotional support – such as counselling – for those directly or indirectly affected by such events.
  • The necessary administrative and legal procedures are fulfilled, including the proper reporting of the incident.

See the NEU model policy on violence in schools and colleges for comprehensive details of what actions should take place following a violent incident.

  • Employer policies on violence, abuse and assaults

The HSE states that all employers should have clear policies and procedures that set out how they will prevent, manage and respond to work related violence. The NEU has produced a model policy for employers which sets out how they should respond to violence and assaults in schools/colleges. It addresses issues such as: the employer’s legal responsibilities; risk assessment; reporting procedures; dealing with weapons; assaults by pupils and support for victims. Where a school/college or employer does not have an equivalent policy, NEU reps and local officers should encourage the implementation of this model policy.

  • Reporting incidents of violence and abuse

All accidents and injuries should be reported, no matter how trivial they might appear.  This applies to verbal abuse as well as physical assault, as the psychological harm which can follow such incidents can lead to very real illness and mental distress for those who are unfortunate enough to experience them.

The HSE advises that records of violent behaviour and assaults should include the following:

  • A record in the incident reporting system.
  • A note of what happened, when and who was involved.
  • Details of any circumstances that staff think could have contributed to the incident.

The HSE and TUC advise that employers should prepare a specific form for reporting instances of violence and abuse, both physical and verbal. The NEU model violence in schools and colleges policy contains a reporting form, which is specific to educational premises.

Additionally, the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) require that employers must inform the HSE of the following:

  • All accidents to employees resulting in deaths or ‘specified injuries’.
  • All accidents which result in an employee being off work due to injuries for more than seven days.
  • All accidents to non-employees which result in them being killed or taken to hospital and which are connected with work.

The definition of accidents includes assaults so that injuries resulting from assaults are also reportable.  The NEU is particularly concerned that these are reported to the HSE and recorded by the employer whenever necessary.

Furthermore, any violence or abuse in relation to a protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation) may constitute illegal harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Detailed NEU guidance on harassment and bullying is available.

Following any incident involving violence or assault, risk assessments should also be reviewed in the light of the incident, to identify whether additional measures are necessary.  Further advice on all these matters can be found in the NEU briefings on Accidents, injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences at school and Risk Assessments.

Safer School Partnerships

Safer School Partnerships (SSPs) arose from a joint initiative between the DfE, the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board and the Association of Chief Police Officers. The SSP initiative aims to provide structured ways in which schools can work with the local police force to achieve the following aims:

  • To reduce the prevalence of crime and victimisation amongst young people.
  • To enhance the learning environment via a safe and secure school community.
  • To help young people achieve their full educational potential
  • To engage young people, challenge poor behaviour and build mutual respect within the school community.

SSP arrangements can include police officers with a responsibility for liaising with and visiting groups of local schools, for instance to deliver training and assemblies.

The intention of introducing SSPs was to co-ordinate the work of the various agencies, including the schools, employer and police, and ensure they developed a protocol based on shared principles and setting out roles and responsibilities of the various partners. In 2009, there were around 450 SSPs in place, with approximately 5000 schools involved in such schemes. However, cuts to the police in recent years have had an impact on the availability of SSPs and it is likely that fewer partnerships are now in operation.

Surveillance

A possible 85-90 per cent of secondary schools use CCTV in Britain, according to statistics claimed by Big Brother Watch.  Increasingly, schools/colleges are introducing CCTV cameras for the purposes of security and to address concerns about student behaviour.  The NEU has reservations about the introduction of CCTV cameras and the balance between surveillance of students, and potential overt or covert surveillance of staff, must be paramount.
 
If a school/college is considering the introduction of a CCTV system, certain requirements under data protection and human rights legislation must be complied with both before the installation of the system and once it is up and running.  The key requirements to ensure compliance are listed in Appendix One of the NEU’s guidance on Photographic policies.

Action points for safety reps

In order to preclude covert surveillance of staff, the following safeguards should be sought by NEU health and safety representatives at school level (or health and safety advisers at LA level) before CCTV systems are installed:

  • that the purpose of the CCTV system is school security and/or monitoring pupils’ behaviour
  • that data storage conforms to the requirements of the Data Protection Act
  • that the process for disclosing data about individuals is transparent and available to all staff
  • that the operation and maintenance of the system is subject to regular reviews which are made available to safety reps (or health and safety advisers)

CCTV can be a useful resource for schools/colleges provided there are requisite safeguards.
 
CCTV cameras should be positioned outside classrooms/lecture theatres/computer suites which will ensure that there is no potential for misuse, ie covert surveillance of staff.  The Information Commissioner advises that "continuous videoing of particular individuals is only likely to be justified in rare circumstances."
 
If management in a school/college do not consider that siting a camera outside a classroom/suite will be sufficient to prevent theft or vandalism, the health and safety representative/adviser should seek written assurances that the CCTV will only be activated when the room is not being used for teaching and that any footage will not be used for staff disciplinaries or for performance management.
 
There are circumstances where covert monitoring may be lawful.  Regional/Wales office advice should always be sought in these cases.

Further guidance

NEU guidance – all available from the NEU website.

  • School/college security
  • Risk assessment
  • Individual pupil risk assessment
  • Lone working
  • Pupil behaviour

DfE archived guidance

Note that the content on the National Archives site may not reflect current Government policy. All statutory guidance and legislation published on this site continues to reflect the current legal position unless indicated otherwise.

HSE guidance

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