Dealing With Violence at School

A survey of more than 4,700 NASUWT members in 2021 suggests that 38% have been subjected to verbal abuse from students in past year.

Over the last few months, IOSH (the Institute of Health and Safety) and NASUWT have highlighted an increase in violence and extreme behaviour in the workplace, including UK schools. Speakers at the NASUWT union’s 2021 conference, revealed that many teachers are ‘struggling alone’ with extreme behaviour in the classroom. Shockingly, teachers are being subjected to “derogatory sexualised” terms, as well as violence and threats by pupils in the classroom. This is as well as a “deterioration” in pupil behaviour over recent years, with many staff “struggling alone” with extreme cases in the classroom. A motion passed at the conference condemned schools and colleges who claim that “unacceptable” pupil behaviour is just “part of the job”.

IOSH report

In a report published in the November/December issue of the IOSH magazine, they found that workplace violence is typically a greater risk in public-facing sectors and is rising in many areas. While 1.4% of working adults in the UK experience one or more violent incidents at work annually, the highest risk is in protective service professions such as policing, where 8.4% are assaulted while on the job. Health and social care associate professionals also have an increased risk, at 3.9%, while the figure for health professionals is 3.3% (GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2020).

Workers in public-facing roles, including education are also at risk, says Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH head of health and safety. “Public-facing workers have a higher potential for violence from strangers – around 60% of all reported violent incidents while in 29% of incidents the offender is known to the victim through work.”


A survey of more than 4,700 NASUWT members in 2021 suggests that 38% have been subjected to verbal abuse from students in past year, while 10% have received threats of physical violence from pupils during the same period. The poll found that 6% of teachers have been subjected to physical violence by pupils in the last year. NASUWT sought responses from its members across the UK, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Often, teachers said the abuse and attacks made them less enthusiastic about their job. Several said they did not report poor behaviour because they felt that no action would be taken, while others said they had been warned that doing so would harm their careers.

Claire Saunders, an education consultant says, “A challenge is reporting of incidents perceived to be minor, such as verbal abuse. Employees may not see the benefit in reporting, but it will help the employer to understand the environment in which the employee is working and to build an understanding of service users that may present a risk.”

Rosemary Carabine, a member of the NASUWT executive, said: “Why should a teacher, or a group of teachers, feel they can only feel safe at work, or make a difference in their workplace, by using grievance procedures, or having to resort to collective industrial action to stop the threats or aggression that occurs for some on a daily basis? How many more disciplinary, capability or such procedures do we allow some of our members to go through because they are perceived to be not dealing with the unacceptable and extreme behaviour before we say enough is enough?”

The feedback comes in the midst of a public debate over the use of exclusions and school discipline policies that include removing disruptive pupils from classes and other sanctions.

Legislation and reporting incidents

In situations where the risk of workplace violence is foreseeable, health and safety legislation applies. In the UK, this includes the general duties of employers to their employees under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the requirements for risk assessments under regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (as amended) 1999. Where instances of workplace violence result in specified injuries, incidents should be reported to RIDDOR within the designated timeframe.

The DfE response

The DfE replied in a statement, saying “Teachers and school staff have a right to be safe while doing their jobs and any form of misconduct, particularly violence towards them, is completely unacceptable. The majority of schools provide a safe environment for pupils and teaching staff and it’s important that they remain as such.”

The HSE defines work-related violence as: “Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.”

Outside of the classroom

In other areas, a 2021 report by HR software company Breathe reveals that violent in the workplace costs the UK economy £20.2bn a year. The costs to employers of lost productivity, higher absence and turnover specifically from workplace violence are not recorded by the HSE, but the impact on businesses is clear. Drugs and alcohol may play a role. The HSE estimates that in 21% of threats and 43% of assaults, victims reported that the offender was under the influence of alcohol. For perpetrators suspected to have taken drugs, the figures were 28% and 42% (HSE, 2021).

ILO convention

In June 2021, the International Labour Organisation’s C190 Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 came into force providing a clear framework to end violence and harassment at work. Governments that ratify C190 will be required to put in place the necessary laws and policy measures to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work.

The labour standard also specifically defines gender-based violence. UN Women launched the Shadow Pandemic public awareness campaign in May 2020, focussing on the worldwide increase in domestic violence amid the COVID-19 crisis. The UK government has yet to ratify C190, but has published Tackling violence against women and girls policy paper in July 2021. This comes three months after the Domestic Abuse Act became law.

At the annual NUT conference, delegates heard claims that “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies could damage pupils’ mental health.

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