Monday, 12 April 2010

Reasonable force and false accusations

The next Conservative manifesto pledge....

We will make it easier for teachers to use reasonable force to deal with violent incidents and remove disruptive pupils from the classroom without fear of legal action, and give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations.

The 2008/09 OFSTED annual report states that: “Pupils’ behaviour is better overall in primary and special schools than in secondary schools but it is nevertheless good or outstanding in 80% of secondary schools. These figures indicate that the very large majority of schools manage behaviour well and engage pupils effectively.” Despite this, a key part of the Conservative Party education manifesto is “TOUGHER DISCIPLINE”. David Cameron, speaking in January 2010, said that we must give teachers, “the powers and protections they need to keep order. Over the last decade these have been slowly stripped away.”

Ed Balls disagrees. Speaking last week to the NASUWT conference, he launched guidelines that aim to clarify teachers’ existing rights to use force in the classroom. He said, "Myths that schools should have 'no-contact policies', that teachers shouldn't be able to protect and defend themselves and others, will be dispelled by this new guidance which makes clear that in some situations, teachers have the powers and protection to use force."

Have teachers’ power to deal with “violent incidents” been, as Mr. Cameron claims, “stripped away”? Judging by the number of changes to the law that extend teachers’ rights to use reasonable force (and to search pupils and their property without consent) it does not seem so: additional statutory powers have been granted to teachers in the Education and Inspections Act of 2006, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.

The guidelines launched by Ed Balls (and published on the Teachernet website) explain that,

“Section 93 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 enables school staff to use reasonable force to prevent a pupil from:
a. committing a criminal offence (or, for a pupil under the age of criminal responsibility, what would be an offence for an older pupil);
b. causing personal injury or damage to property; or
c. prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline at the school, whether during a teaching session or otherwise.”

They go on to make it clear that all staff at the school have this power, whether temporary or full time, and that the power applies “where the pupil (including a pupil from another school) is on the school premises or elsewhere in the lawful control or charge of the staff member (for example on a school trip).”

I wonder then, exactly how do the Conservatives plan to make it ‘easier’ for teachers to use ‘reasonable force’ without ‘fear of legal action’? What is the Tory approach? I cannot think of any circumstances that might arise in which teachers would need to use force that are not already captured in the above, especially point ‘c’ which is quite wide-ranging, so a further change to the law seems unnecessary; a campaign to raise teacher awareness of their rights is welcome but, in releasing the new guidelines on the use of force, Labour has already begun this work; and if the Tories dictate to schools what they must include in their behaviour policies, they will be vulnerable to the very charge they make against how we are currently governed, “where power is held by a distant and technocratic elite.”

The only aspect of the pledge that could, if implemented, be a genuine move from the status quo is the plan to “give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations.” Michael Gove elaborated on this in a speech in March 2009, “Teachers will enjoy anonymity if faced with complaints from pupils and there will be a time limit by which any allegation against a teacher must be investigated or dropped.” This idea has significant support - according to the TES, “The [House of] Commons children, schools and families select committee argued that teachers should be named only in the event of a conviction” and, as you would expect, teachers’ unions are also in favour. It is unclear, however, in both the manifesto pledge and Gove’s speech, whether the Tories support statutory anonymity or simply anonymity until a charge is formally brought against a teacher. The meaning of “the strongest possible protection” will need to be spelled out very clearly if the Tories are to gain teachers’ support on this basis.

David Cameron says “We [the Tories] are going to say to our teachers, if you want to search for and confiscate any item you think is dangerous and disruptive – you can. If you want to remove violent children from the classroom – you can.” If he had just added the word “already” before the word “can”, he would be accurately describing the current situation. He goes on, “And if you want protection from false allegations of abuse that wreck lives and wreck careers – we’ll make sure you have it.” But, he forgot to add, we haven’t yet specified whether the protection will be statutory.

How will this policy actually change the educational landscape?

An additional emphasis, under the Conservatives, on the rights of teachers may make teachers feel more supported. However, further legal rights seem unnecessary and without a clear expression of exactly how they plan to make it ‘easier’ for teachers to use ‘reasonable force’ without fear of legal action, we are left feeling like the Tories might be serious about supporting teachers.

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