Standards of pupil behaviour are plummeting and driving teachers away from the classroom, a major conference has been told.
Delegates attending this year’s Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) congress in Crieff also warned that relentless cuts to specialist support services were making the situation even more unbearable.
One individual said that, in 11 years of teaching, he had never known behaviour to be as “difficult” as it is currently. “I can’t convince anybody to go into teaching right now, which is really sad at a time when we need more teachers than ever,” he added.
The concerns come after multiple reports of deteriorating pupil conduct, particularly following Covid-related lockdowns.
In November last year, senior figures at the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) warned there had been a rise in incidents of aggression and stressed the increase was particularly marked among P1 and P2 children. They said they knew of one staff member in the primary sector who suffered a broken jaw and damage to an eye socket after being kicked in the face by a pupil. Another individual in a different school was punched by a P2 child and had a tooth knocked out.
Further evidence of the problem emerged earlier this week when staff at Bannerman High in Glasgow threatened strikes over pupil violence and disruption. The NASUWT union said staff at the school had submitted six violent incident forms in just a few weeks since the end of the Easter holidays.
The worsening trend has been interpreted by some as a sign of “distressed behaviour” and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. However, SSTA delegates insisted the issue was a concern long before Covid and criticised what they described as the persistent tendency of bosses to blame teachers when things go wrong in the classroom.
They also unanimously backed a motion calling for an “urgent review of behaviour support and management in schools” to “identify and fund additional resources”.
The Scottish Government said it was assisting a number of programmes in a bid to promote “positive relationships” and tackle “indiscipline, abuse and violence”.
But Kirsten Herbst-Gray, who proposed the motion, told congress: “More and more teachers suffer from mental health issues. Many factors are responsible for this. Unmotivated students with behavioural problems, unreasonable parents and even social media create stress and depression.”
She added: “[Teachers] are given fewer and fewer tools to support pupils and achieve positive behaviour outcomes. It is not surprising, and it is no secret, that teachers experience verbal and physical abuse.
“Very often schools do not have the resources, human and others, to deal with challenging behaviour towards staff and amongst pupils.”
Ms Herbst-Gray also suggested “alternative” education arrangements may have to be in place for some young people.
She said: “In the light of the Government’s Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) agenda, which is a great aspiration, it appears to be necessary to increase teacher numbers, to employ more support staff, to bring more mental health experts into schools – for pupils and for teachers. But it is also necessary to plan for and develop an alternative route of progression for disengaged secondary pupils at the age of 14 or 15 whose behaviour communicates clearly that they wish to be away from the structure of school. Such an alternative would change the lives of these pupils and our staff in schools for the better.
“Differentiation and behaviour support are left to the classroom practitioner in the absence of classroom and pupil support assistants whose numbers have been cut over time… To rectify these cuts, schools should receive funding directly and should have the autonomy to decide how best to use it.”
Her remarks were echoed by a number of other delegates. One said: “I’ve been teaching for 11 years. I’ve never known behaviour to be as difficult as it is now. This is mentioned to me by colleagues more than pay because it’s something that impacts them every single day of their job.
“There were people who were happy to work from home as teachers [during lockdown] because they realised how easy teaching could be if you just had pupils who listened and did all [their] work, and all you had to do was mark it.”
He added: “Councils and government try to start to shift the blame on what the problem is. Covid – yes, that’s now something we can use as a reason why pupils are misbehaving, or why it’s so difficult to control them.
“But what’s starting to happen is that, whenever you have pupils who behave poorly in your class, [you’re told], ‘your learning and teaching isn’t good enough, you’re just not engaged in your work, you don’t know how to control your class’… [There’s] no accountability from anybody. Senior leadership teams could be a lot more understanding.
“There’s no support staff – or, if there is, they’re like gold dust because, whenever you have a class of 30 pupils and 20 of them have an additional support need, and you can’t even get [a member of support staff], it gives you an idea of where things are going.
“It’s a really demoralising time for education, I feel. I can’t convince anybody to go into teaching right now, which is really sad at a time when we need more teachers than ever.”
Another delegate said she knew of an award-winning colleague who had left his job because of the situation. “[He] just quit half-way through the year, no provision in place,” she told congress. “He just handed in his notice and walked out.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Violence is never acceptable and the safety of pupils and staff at school is paramount.
“We advocate an approach for schools and local authorities to work with pupils on the underlying reasons behind inappropriate behaviour. We are supporting a number of programmes to promote positive relationships and tackle indiscipline, abuse and violence.
“We are investing £145.5 million to support education staffing in 2022/23 – the biggest increase to support teacher recruitment since 2007.
“Local authorities are responsible for identifying and meeting the additional support needs of their pupils. We also provide councils with an additional £15 million each year to help them respond to the individual needs of children and young people. This has allowed the recruitment of 1,036 extra pupil support assistants in 2021.
“In addition, all teachers provide support to pupils with additional support needs and recent figures show that teacher numbers have increased for the sixth year in a row to 54,285 in 2021 and there are more teachers than at any time since 2008, with the ratio of pupils to teachers at its lowest since 2009.”