‘He ran at me with an axe’: teachers on facing violence in schools

Old School Desk

One afternoon in 2013, Andrew, then 11, had to stay behind after school for misbehaving in his English lesson. He’d thrown water at the teacher, wound up other pupils and tried to run out of the classroom. The punishment was to complete the work that he hadn’t done in class. Supervising the detention was Mark Oldman, the headteacher.

“I said, ‘OK, we need to get this work done,’” recalls Oldman. “He said, ‘No, I want to go home to my mum.’ I said, ‘I will ensure you get home after you’ve done this. I will even give you a lift home. But it’s important you get this work done.’ At that point he ran at me and tried to push me. Then he tried to punch me and basically latched on to my arm. He dug his nails into my hand and wouldn’t let go.” Andrew took a chunk out of Oldman’s hand. The headteacher required a bandage and tetanus jab. He still has the scar.

“Yes, I’ve thrown stuff at teachers,” says Andrew, now 15. “I’ve thrown pens, chairs. In the end you don’t actually want to hurt them, it’s just out of anger.” He was excluded around 100 times from various primary schools.

Here at Millgate, a school for boys aged 11 to 16 with social, emotional and mental health problems in Leicester, all of the pupils have been permanently excluded from one or more schools before arriving, mostly for attacking staff either physically or verbally. These boys are “the absolute extreme”, says Oldman, cheerfully. “I’ve had computer monitors thrown at me. I’ve been whacked around the head with a tennis racket. I’ve had punches thrown at me, been spat at.” Soon after he was appointed in January 2013, a pupil ran at him with an axe. “I was going to keep him in detention and they weren’t used to detentions here. So he took an axe out of the van – the school used to do forestry skills, and the van was still open – and ran at me.” Oldman intercepted the axe and restrained the boy.

Oldman, 32, who is married with three children, is tall and powerfully built, and has the look of someone who works out in the gym. He tells me these stories in a matter-of-fact manner. “I’m not that bothered about being bitten and attacked because I genuinely believe the investment you make in these boys is well worth making and the impact it later has on society is huge.” He tries to provide a kind of tough love, like a stern but supportive parent.

Millgate might be about antisocial behaviour, but the impression the school leaves on visitors is one of wholesome activity and benevolent discipline. I notice piles of sweets on his desk. “It’s for our midnight feast,” he explains. “We’re camping in the hall tonight.” Oldman has adapted a National Trust list of “50 things to do by the time you are 11¾” and pitching a tent is one of them. “It’s too cold to take them camping outside so we’re doing it in the sports hall.” He’s also planning a trip to the seaside. “Many have never been to the beach even though the nearest one is only one and a half hours away.”

The school, recently ranked “outstanding” by Ofsted, has 66 pupils. Many will have witnessed domestic violence, neglect and drug and alcohol dependency. Nearly a quarter are looked after by foster carers or children’s homes. “Whatever people say, it’s hard to be removed from your home,” says Oldman. “The threshold for being taken into care is now so high, some of the stuff kids here would have seen will be damaging probably for the rest of their lives.” Some students have “additional complexities”, he continues, “autism, ADHD, ODD – that is a new diagnosis, oppositional defiant disorder.”

What’s that? “It’s a trendy one,” he replies. “Basically, it’s kids who say no, and parents struggle to get them to do something.”

Oldman became interested in children with special needs while on a placement in a mainstream school in Leicester during his teacher training. “A pupil in the special needs class said, ‘What did you have for breakfast, Sir?’ I was still at university, so I probably said chocolate cake or something. ‘What did you have?’ I asked. And he said, ‘I had a wank, Sir.’ I thought that was very funny and we all got on from there.” After graduating, he worked in a pupil referral unit in Islington, north London, then became a special needs advocate for Elfrida Rathbone, a charity that offers a range of support to children, families and young people. In his mid-20s he returned to Leicester, where he worked in a school for children with social, emotional and mental health problems, rising through the ranks to become deputy head. He was appointed headteacher of Millgate at the age of 28.

He believes all schools have become more violent. “There has been an increase in low-level disruption,” he says, “and I’m not sure staff are being given enough training, enough time to reflect and consider where poor behaviour comes from and how they can overcome it before it gets to a school like mine.” The rise, he believes, is not due to “an increase in nasty, naughty children”, but “comes through complex social backgrounds” and “schools doing their absolute best with a lack of resources, a lack of expertise and pressure to meet baseline targets.”

He tries to engender self-worth and self-discipline; to ensure boys stop following short-term goals – like being big and hard, or thinking a willingness to hurt people makes you cool – and are guided instead by right and wrong. He reminds them of success stories, of previous pupils who’ve turned their lives around. He tries to persuade them that they are good enough to be loved, cared for, believed in. “Andrew, like a lot of the boys here, is able to recognise when somebody cares, when somebody is willing to make an investment. The period of time when he was consistently attacking me was a period when he was trying to find out whether I was going to be staying or not.”

And rather than exclusion, which many of his pupils see as a reward – they get to go home, get out of work – he favours more “meaningful consequences” such as getting them to apologise to the teacher they attacked. “It’s harder to actually have to look someone in the face and say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ than it is to be excluded, because then you can go away and don’t have to think about it.”

A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) showed that four out of 10 teachers had been physically assaulted by children over the previous year. More than three quarters said they had been pushed or shoved, around half were kicked or had had an “object” such as a piece of furniture thrown at them, and more than a third had been punched. Just under half felt pupil behaviour had got worse in the past two years, and the figures back them up. According to the Department for Education, 18,970 pupils at primary and secondary schools were temporarily excluded in 2013-2014 because of physical attacks on teachers and other adults – obstruction, jostling, biting, kicking, hair-pulling – compared with 17,190 the previous year. (The number of permanent exclusions for physical assault against an adult also increased, from 490 to 550.) Three quarters of trainee and newly qualified teachers have considered leaving the profession, according to a 2015 ATL survey. Of those, 25% said challenging pupil behaviour was the reason. Meanwhile, a 2014 joint survey by the ATL and ITV News found that more than a quarter of teachers had faced aggression from a student’s parents or carers in the past year.

Occasionally attacks can be very serious, even fatal. On 8 December 1995, Philip Lawrence, a headteacher of a comprehensive school in north London, was stabbed to death by a gang of teenagers after he came to the aid of a 13-year-old pupil who was being attacked. On 28 April 2014, Ann Maguire, a teacher in a college in Leeds, was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old pupil, William Cornick, during a Spanish lesson. On 11 June 2015, Vincent Uzomah, a supply teacher, was stabbed in the stomach by a 14-year-old pupil during a science lesson in Bradford. He survived the attack.

Tom Cable, a chemistry teacher in an inner-city comprehensive in the south-west, has taught in a high-performing girls’ state school and in the private sector. He sees his job as a vocation and has been in his current school for nine years. One morning in 2013, he was explaining refraction to his class of 13-year-olds. About 15 minutes into the lesson, one of them stood up and walked towards Cable. Something about him didn’t seem right. “He just said very calmly, ‘I’m in charge now,’” recalls Cable. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And then I noticed the knife.”

The boy was slight, with fair hair. He was quiet, marginalised by his classmates, and lived with foster parents because his home life had been chaotic. “He’d suffered neglect and possibly abuse,” says Cable. Cable thought of his own children, aged 11 and eight. He looked at his class. “They were frightened. Silent. Just looking at me, thinking, ‘This adult is going to protect me.’”

He ran to the classroom next door and told the teacher to call the police. When he returned, the pupil was still holding the knife, but seemed uncertain what to do next. Cable took his chance. He dismissed the class, starting with the children furthest away. “I thought, ‘Try to keep things calm.’ I didn’t want to freak him out.”

Once the classroom had been cleared, Cable shut the door and waited for the police. Three officers arrived armed with Tasers. “They said, ‘Put the knife down or we’re going to Taser you.’ So he put the knife down.”

The pupil never came back to the school.

And yet Cable is far more worried by routine violations. “Things being thrown at you, being pushed, threatened. Like, ‘I’m going to get you and beat you up.’ An incident with a knife is dealt with, whereas threats can make you feel uncomfortable for weeks.” He says he gets shoved and sworn at regularly.

The TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) has an online community where teachers share stories. “One of my colleagues was repeatedly punched by a year 11 girl but nothing happened to her as he was said to have provoked her. His provocation was to stop her jumping out of a second-floor window!” writes one teacher. “I got spat at in the face… the lad got a week off (no doubt to play with his PlayStation),” complains another, “because the school didn’t want its permanent exclusion rates to go up.”

This is a major problem. A sharp rise in exclusions or consistently high exclusion rates can trigger an inspection from Ofsted. And a poor Ofsted report doesn’t only affect a school’s reputation. Heads can lose their jobs.

“It’s very difficult for heads to be open and honest about this,” says Terry Hadyn, professor of education at the University of East Anglia, and a former teacher, “If Ofsted come in, the fate of a school hangs on their decision, so it’s understandable that heads will strain with every sinew to present an impression of an orderly school.”

Cable would only agree to be interviewed if we used a pseudonym. “I’ve got a headteacher who worries about negative press,” he says. But he was also concerned about his own reputation. “Teachers feel that if they log too many incidents it’s going to look bad in appraisals, and for their career.” Pupil behaviour is seen as an indicator of effectiveness, “which is really unfair because if you’ve got the worst students in the school, then you’re going to have lots of behaviour comments”. “It is a taboo in our occupation,” said a teacher at the recent NASUWT conference. “We just don’t talk about it.”

There are several factors behind the rise in disruptive behaviour. In 1978, the Warnock report recommended that children with physical and learning difficulties should be taught in mainstream schools and that segregated “special” schools should only be for those with the most complex disabilities. The report argued that if given extra help and facilities, children with special educational needs would benefit from being in mainstream education. At around the same time, the education of children in care was also re-evaluated. Most were taught in the children’s homes in which they lived, but thinking began to evolve away from institutional to community-based care. Children’s homes declined in favour of fostering and adoption, which meant children went to mainstream schools.

These changes have coincided with shifts in the family home. “What we are seeing is increasing numbers of children who have problems tied to the failure of families to provide a secure environment,” says Julian Elliott, a former teacher who is now a professor of educational psychology and principal at Collingwood College, Durham University. Elliott is most worried by children who have failed to achieve a secure attachment to a parent or adult caregiver. “Where you have attachment disorders, you have massive problems,” he says, “and with the breakdown of the family there are an increasing number of children who have failed to make these attachments because their family is in chaos.”

Cable says a lot of parents want to help but don’t know what to do. “They just don’t know how to enforce discipline.” Another factor, he believes, is low aspiration. “In my previous school, students felt they were going places.” In his current school, however, students feel they are going nowhere. “In this area it’s fairly normal not to have a job. They can’t see a future, so they’re just playing at school because they don’t think it’s relevant.”

He also thinks it is a mistake to focus on each violent pupil in isolation. In his view, violence is not a consequence of an individual arriving independently at a decision to throw a chair at a teacher. It is a social process in which people do things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. “If you are a naughty pupil and you want to make a name for yourself, and it’s pretty ordinary to swear at teachers and it’s fairly ordinary to shove past them, then what do you need to do to actually stand out and get attention? You bring a knife to school. And that is really key. We need to get our behaviour back to a place where your actions don’t have to be extreme before you get challenged.”

But our view of authority has changed. “Western society values a set of behaviours which don’t lend themselves to deference,” says Elliott. “What is prized is independence, autonomy, self-determination. Kids are less likely to accept the authority of adults – teachers, police officers, leaders.” Teachers, he says, can no longer rely on the authority invested in them by virtue of their position. “They need to exercise authority through their professional expertise.”

“Schools need support from social and health services and parents to deal with the complex issues many pupils face due to chaotic home lives or mental health issues,” argues Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL. “A lack of funds for social services and child and adolescent mental health services means pupils are at risk and, all too often, school staff are being left to plug the gaps in social care as best they can.”

I speak to a teacher in a popular primary school in Birmingham, who describes her class of 30 seven-year-olds. “I have a girl with cerebral palsy and another with autism who finds it difficult to follow the class routine. I have a boy with impaired hearing, so I have to wear an FM wireless transmitter [to block out distracting background noise]. I also have a child with moderate learning difficulties and two other children with behavioural difficulties, including one who can be aggressive to other pupils.” The girl with cerebral palsy has a designated helper; the teacher has an assistant. “I looked at the class list at the beginning of the year and thought, ‘How I am going to cope with those children and ensure that everyone else in the class maintains progress?’”

***

Doug Melia is a cheerful, burly former bouncer and martial arts teacher of 35, who travels all over the UK advising teachers on how to deal with aggressive or disruptive pupils. When we meet, he shows me a grey, long-sleeved polo shirt made from bite-resistant material, which he recommends to schools “as a last resort”.

“I’ve just been to a primary school where a boy had a marker pen. He took the lid off and instead of the nib there was a blade,” he says. “There have been other cases where children have brandished scissors or chairs as weapons. If you’ve got a child you suspect may misbehave they shouldn’t have access to scissors in the first place.” Teachers tell him that they can’t restrict access for certain pupils. “But sometimes to be safe, you can’t always be fair,” he says.

Melia worked as a bodyguard for a South African billionaire before setting up his own company, Safer Handling, 15 years ago, with the aim of educating teachers in de-escalation techniques and containment methods. Some headteachers come to him because a difficult pupil has been transferred from another school and they find themselves unable to cope. “About a month ago, I came across a teacher who had to go to hospital because she’d been bitten on the hand by a seven-year-old who’d been placed in the school a few months before. He’d kicked another teacher in the stomach as well.”

Motives for violent outbursts can be complex, he says. “I was in a school recently where a six-year-old boy was acting in a way where he knew the school would have to send him home. It turned out that his stepfather was being violent towards his mother and he wanted to get home to protect her.”

Melia runs through the best options with teachers. “I always ask staff, is there a time-out room for the child to calm down in? That has to be risk assessed. It can’t be a staff room where, for example, you have bags, electric leads, computers and breakable glass.” Another option, he says, is to remove the other children from the classroom and leave the child. He advises teachers to use voice, gaze and posture – standing straight with shoulders squared – to signal authority and convey calm.

“There is a lot of confusion among teachers about what they can and cannot do,” Melia says. And restraint techniques are harder than they seem. Some, if done incorrectly, are dangerous (such as “the double basket hold”, which involves holding a person’s arms across their chest). Much of his work is in primary schools. “Children at secondary school are over the age of criminal responsibility [10 years old], so if you have a serious issue you are more likely to ring the police.”

Many teachers find the idea of holds unsettling. They came into teaching to nurture and encourage children, not to pin them down like criminals. They also worry that if they touch a child, even in self-defence, they run the risk of being accused of physical (or worse, sexual) abuse. (“Schools should not have a no-contact policy,” clarifies the Department for Education in updated guidelines published in 2013.) But supporters argue restraint techniques can help reduce violence. “Having to restrain a child is not something a teacher does lightly,” says the ATL’s Mary Bousted. “It should be a last resort to keep a child from harming themselves or others. But it is vital that everyone in a school gets regular training in how to restrain children.”

“The trouble is, it’s extremely difficult when kids are in your face or laughing at you and you are tired and run down. You might do something like, ‘Well, you come with me,’ and grab a child’s arm and then the child’s space is invaded and so they shrug, ‘Get off me,’ and push you,” says Elliott.

***

In 2014, Tracy Hill, 30, was working as a teaching assistant in an infant school in Northamptonshire. One of the pupils, Billy, six, who was in foster care, was troubled, tense and aggressive. He had a learning support assistant, but she only worked in the mornings. Hill took over in the afternoons.

“He didn’t like being told what to do,” says Hill. “He’d get stroppy, frown at you, growl at you, strop off. He’d hurl chairs, books, anything at the teachers.” One lunchtime last Easter, fighting broke out in the playground and Hill was asked to remove Billy. Because she knew she couldn’t do so on her own – she’d been instructed in restraint techniques and told to never go solo – she asked another teaching assistant, also trained, to help her. “We escorted him to the special needs room and let him go so he could calm down. But he didn’t calm down, he kept kicking me. I explained that if he carried on, he would be restrained.” Billy ignored her, and as he squirmed and twisted, she said to the assistant, “We’re going to put him in a seated hold” – where a person sits on either side and restrains the child by holding their arms. But the move had been updated and the teaching assistant hadn’t been on a refresher course. Billy kicked Hill hard in the face. She was taken to hospital suffering from dizziness, and lost the sight in her right eye. “My sight returned two weeks later, but I’m still under the eye specialist as there are problems,” she says. She quit soon after the attack. “I thought, ‘What’s the point in getting such a poor wage when that can happen?’ It put me off.”

***

When Andrew, an articulate boy with an air of sweetness, arrived at Millgate, aged 11, he had the reading age of a five-year-old. This summer, he’s sitting his English GCSE. “I felt angry a lot of the time,” he says. “Mostly it was over work. I didn’t want to do the work because I couldn’t understand it. I got told, ‘We can’t help you more than anyone else, because we’ve got a class of 30,’ so I was always told to get on with it, and sometimes I couldn’t, so then I’d get angry with myself and I didn’t want to put my hand up again because then people take the mick out of you and then you retaliate. I’d throw stuff, chairs, pens. I’d swear and distract the whole class. And then you don’t want to go home because Mum will have a go and everything will kick off, so you just run off, go to the park.”

Oldman says the best thing about his school is that it has the time and resources to build trusting relationships. “I think the mainstream sometimes gets a raw deal. It does tend to work on the basis that you try them in mainstream and see if it fails. Mainstream schools are much better at dealing with high-level behaviour than they’ve ever been, but the pressure is on them to absorb it within their own school budget, and that is shrinking. There is also the pressure of Ofsted, pressure of results and success criteria, and actually kids can get lost in the system and sometimes will fight back against it.”

At Andrew’s core, Oldman says, was “an awful lot of self-loathing”. The school stressed the importance of reading and writing, but also redirected his anger and sense of injustice. “I quickly put him on student council because he was very vocal about what he thought was right and wrong in the school,” says Oldman. Andrew last attacked him three and a half years ago. “There are still times when I get angry,” Andrew says. “My New Year’s resolution is that I’m not going to kick off no matter how angry I get.” It’s early spring when we meet and so far he’s kept to his goal.

Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sally Williams, for The Guardian on Saturday 11th June 2016 10.00 Europe/London

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