Teaching Assistants (TAs), Learning Support Assistants, Classroom Assistants, or whichever name they go by in your school or college, everyone knows the value of these people in the smooth running of a school.
Often these people work with the most vulnerable pupils and learners who require specialist support, yet it is no secret how dreadful the pay is. Support staff can also be overlooked for wider training and most have witnessed the low levels of respect shown by students, parents/care givers and even colleagues.
Is it any wonder then that in a recent study by The University of Roehampton, London they found that 53% of Teaching Assistants had experienced physical violence and 60% had experienced verbal abuse in just the last 12 months? Having myself worked across different sectors in education, from mainstream and special schools to pupil referral units, at first, I didn’t find these numbers too shocking or unexpected.
Perhaps my previous experience in education was clouding my judgment. However, when I read of the sample used, I found all the research subjects were taken from mainstream education. Then I was shocked and saddened for both the victims and perpetrators as this was not my experience from mainstream education.
Everyone has the right to come to work and feel and be safe. Everyone has the right to come to school and feel and be safe. So, what is going wrong?
One word which is used in the study to explain the findings is “culture” and the culture of the school. Particularly cultures where the TAs were felt to be less superior to the classroom teachers and SLT, and where it was felt that if the physical violence had happened to one of those staff members it would have dealt with far more severely. Alarmingly, it was also felt that the TAs were there to manage that type of behaviour and should almost be used to accept that it will happen.
Clearly neither of these things are right and a school should not operate like that. For me, if we are going to promote positive behaviour in schools and society, it must be a team effort. We all must sing from the same hymn sheet, and we all must do and say the same things in response to behaviour. To use physical or verbal violence against a member of staff must be treated the same regardless of your hierarchal role within the school.
Children only see hierarchies that we show them, if we create visible hierarchies in our schools and to paraphrase Orwell’s Animal Farm badly all adults are important, but some are more important than others, then can we really be surprised when the adults we place at the bottom of our hierarchy are treated with less respect than others by the children and young people?
The word culture struck a chord with me, in the schools I ran, I always wanted to promote a positive culture, where staff were all respected and treated fairly, where everyone was valued and trusted. Did I always get it right? No, I didn’t but then I am only human.
This is one reason why I love delivering our Classroom Culture programme in schools, where we talk about values, working together, reducing visible hierarchies and promoting positive culture in schools and classrooms. Another area our Classroom Culture Programme covers is restorative approaches, and this was one of the key recommendations from the study.
“Restorative practice should be implemented where appropriate to enable both the staff member and student to experience closure. A meeting based on restorative principles will enable both sides to communicate their feelings about the incident, facilitate mutual understanding and allow learning to take place.”
I am a great believer in restorative practice, I know it can be a divisive topic, but done well, restorative practices give both sides an opportunity to learn, move on and modify behaviour in the long term.
As the study also notes, often the TAs who had been assaulted were not part of any reintegration process, leading to greater levels of anxiety and tension. Surely anything we can do to lower anxiety and tension in schools must be a good thing, for staff and pupils and the generation of a positive classroom culture.
When discussing physical assaults on staff, clearly the topic of restraint will arise, of course it will, restraint can keep people safe when done right. Having had to restrain a child on a few occasions in my teaching career it is not a pleasant experience for the adult or the child and is not something that should be done routinely and should only be a last resort.
In the study, staff and especially the TAs reported they had requested training on restraint but had not been allowed to receive it, again leaving them feeling undervalued, less confident and more vulnerable to the types of behaviour they were experiencing. I know in the past I have personally been guilty of this, not wanting restraint training in my school, worried staff would use it more, worried that someone would get hurt and worried it would undermine the culture I had worked so hard to create.
“If restraint techniques are to be used in a school, then the whole school should be trained in using them, with opt outs available for staff members on health or other grounds.”
Reading this snippet from the study and knowing what I now know because of working for a company that offers training in this area, I learnt that I was wrong. I left my staff under prepared and less confident in dealing with the most extreme behaviours and that when training in this area is done well it can contribute to the positive culture of the school.
I am not just saying this as I work for CPI. I consider myself a person of high morals and ethics and if I didn’t believe in something, I wouldn’t promote it, nor would I do it. So, when I say that for staff to be trained in a programme such as our Safety Intervention Programme
to manage the most risky behaviours presented by pupils it is of high value. You can trust me.
The programme initially teaches you how not to use restraint but how to de-escalate the situation. Then, as a last resort, how to use physical intervention skills, which, when done right, allows everyone using them to feel confident, supported and safe. After all that is what we all want isn’t it? To go to work or school and feel valued, trusted, and ultimately feel safe.
You can read the report summary from University of Roehampton here
Reference - findings and quotes taken from Holt_Birchall_2022_ViolenceTowardsTAs_Summary_Report_FINAL.pdf (roehampton.ac.uk)