Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Testing times

Woman wagging finger

Teachers have always been severely tested by teenagers but, for the safety of everyone, swift action must be taken if a school is aware that a staff member is failing to keep control, says Richard Bird.

The acquittal of a teacher in Nottinghamshire of a charge of attempted murder of a pupil in April was a case that was bound to attract intense media scrutiny.

In sober law, of course, it was simply that the prosecution was unable to prove intent.

The jury accepted that Mr Harvey, a science teacher at a school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was in such a state that he did not know what he was doing, still less intend it. The cynical view is that, deep down, the jury felt the boy got what was coming to him.

That was not, to his immense credit, the view of Mr Harvey who seemingly punished himself by remaining in custody when he could have had bail; nor of the judge despite his stated view on receiving the jury's verdict that "common sense had prevailed".

In learning lessons, it is dangerous to extrapolate from any specifics of the case as there is always much more in it than emerges at trial. The general issues are wider than the media coverage. The readiness of the police to investigate - and of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute - on the gravest available charge gives us some idea of their conception of the 'public interest' when problems arise in schools.

The wisdom of the judge stands as a rebuke to magistrates who sometimes are too ready to find teachers guilty of assault when they have been restraining pupils in difficult circumstances. But the case may also heighten awareness of legal liability for such unfortunate events.

To the limit

Classrooms are testing places, no pun intended. Young adolescents have always pushed the limits with teachers. An Adlerian psychologist would say that the 'will to power' manifests itself in a desire of young people moving beyond childhood to impact on their environment and to test just how powerful they are.

This can be expressed by teenage girls trying to make a teacher blush or boys swearing at a teacher or, indeed, assaulting him. Sexual innuendo against women teachers similarly is a demonstration of power. Sometimes teachers are tested to destruction.

This perennial challenge has been made more complex in recent years by the way in which, once the subtleties of equality legislation have been lost through the Chinese whispers of cascaded training, teachers get the impression that they must allow some children, who run around or attack others, to behave differently from the rest of the class because their behaviour has been medicalised as disability.

The law is more nuanced than that, even with the passing of the new Equality Act, but a teacher has to be on top form to convey to the majority of young people that they will be punished for a particular behaviour; but that some children can do things the others would also like to try.

Legal liability

There was a time when 'old so-and-so' having trouble with a class was no one else's problem. That won't do now. There are immense pressures to ensure, quite rightly, that children succeed academically. Beyond Ofsted accountability, though, the school will be legally liable if its negligence allows a teacher to be harrassed or a child injured.

The test, as always, is foreseeability. If a school knows, or ought to know, that a teacher is failing and at risk of psychological damage, then it must intervene. If that teacher takes time off, then the 'well-note' recommendations need to be examined carefully by whoever conducts the return-to-work interview. A risk assessment must be conducted.

If there is evidence that a class is out of hand, there should be firm intervention sooner rather than later as well as some self-questioning. Is the employer asking someone to do a job that can be done? Are the nature and level of support right? It may be that the school's systems, as operated, are at fault. If so, offering a teacher counselling will be no defence.

In the last analysis, if someone is not fit to teach, in any sense, they should not be teaching. All parties - LAs, heads, unions - have always agreed that if there is a problem, the sooner everyone is given the protection of a formal process the better.

A formal process does not mean that the teacher will automatically be processed to dismissal. What it does mean is that the most debilitating and destructive process of all - drift - does not prevail so that things get steadily worse until a crisis is reached and legal action becomes inevitable... civil or, as in Mr Harvey's case, criminal.

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