The NASUWT's Big Question Survey 2022 highlighted a worrying trend of increasing assaults against teachers. The survey of almost 8,500 NASUWT members reports that 13% of teachers have been physically assaulted by a pupil in the last year.
Of those, just over half had been subjected to verbal abuse, and in the last year 17% confirmed they had been pushed or shoved by a pupil. Disturbingly, 40% of the teachers surveyed felt the school they worked at did not deal with such abuse satisfactorily.
The media revealed further details about assaults ranging from threats to kill a teacher and their family, being upskirted, spat at, punched, pushed and kicked. The Welsh Conservatives obtained data which revealed 5,000 recorded violence cases against school staff between 2018-2022 in Wales alone.
The potential for claims is clear to see.
Unfortunately, assaults against teachers have always formed part of the claims experience of schools and local authorities. However, the survey results and articles suggest teacher assaults are increasing in mainstream schools.
Claimant solicitors often argue the mere occurrence of an assault is evidence of a breach of duty. However, for the reasons outlined below, that is absolutely not the case.
Historically, the Courts have been reluctant to find for claimants if the school can show they assessed risks to staff and had good systems in place. Key issues when determining liability tend to revolve around foreseeability.
Children's behaviour can be unpredictable, but certain pupils such as those with autism, learning difficulties, difficult family backgrounds, or those who simply have a 'short fuse', may have a known propensity to react to certain triggers. Such triggers could include things as diverse as excessive noise, being in large groups, being asked to undertake certain tasks, interacting with certain members of staff or other pupils. However, if such triggers are known to the school, or a pupil has shown a propensity for violent outbursts, there should be a specific risk assessment or behaviour plan.
Guidance and techniques set out within that assessment should be disseminated to all members of staff interacting with that pupil. As well as assessing higher-risk pupils, the school should have a clear pupil behaviour policy which should be communicated to all pupils and staff.
Another consideration is the actions of other staff members. I have dealt with assault cases where defendants have been found liable for the negligent acts of colleagues, either by their negligence contributing to the assailant perpetrating the assault, or by making the situation worse by intervening in a negligent manner.
A good example of this is SH v Care Visions Group Ltd 2021 where the employer of a care worker assaulted by a 15-year-old resident was found vicariously liable for the negligent actions of two colleagues. The Court found that the co-workers were negligent in allowing the assailant to re-enter a room where the Pursuer/Claimant was located, as it should have been foreseeable to them that doing so would likely lead to the assailant assaulting the Pursuer/Claimant.
- Schools should have clear plans and risk assessments regarding individual problem pupils, and the risk of assaults generally.
- A behaviour policy should be communicated to staff and pupils setting out expectations and boundaries.
- Line managers should regularly review changes in behaviours, additional risks, and observations from staff to ensure policies and plans are up to date and fit for purpose.
- Line managers should consider the health of employees, and whether the risks of their role are acceptable for the individual, especially in those with pre-existing vulnerabilities.
- Provide a clear and sensitive plan confirming how to deal with the aftermath of an assault. The welfare of the victim should be at the centre of the plan.