General Secretary Andrea Bradley spoke at this year’s meeting of the Trade Union Congress on a composite motion addressing safety in the workplace. In her speech, the General Secretary highlighted the Stand Up for Quality Education campaign, and its aim to improve teachers’ working lives by tackling the rising tide of indiscipline in schools. In this article, she highlights the key themes that were addressed in her speech to the TUC.

All employees must have the right to a safe working environment, where they are protected from the threat of assault and injury. Sadly, far too many workers – including teachers – have to face the prospect of violence, assault and injury in the course of their everyday working lives.

Our schools should be safe spaces for students and staff alike, providing a welcoming environment where learning and teaching can flourish. And, the majority of the time, this is exactly what they are. But not always.

In recent years, there has been a significant and deeply worrying increase in the numbers of violent incidents perpetrated against staff in our schools.

The pandemic has clearly been a factor in the higher number of assaults against school staff in the past few years. We have an entire generation of young people whose personal and social development was seriously inhibited by their experiences during lockdowns. The loss of structure, together with the lack of social contact with peers and teachers, has left a lasting impact on many young people. For some, this has led to an increased tendency to express anger, confusion or frustration through violence and aggression.

Cuts to education as a result of austerity have also played a significant role in the increase in violent incidents in schools. Since 2010, whilst the numbers of young people with additional support needs has grown significantly – to a large extent as a result of poverty and deprivation – the number of specialist teachers, support staff, and other key professionals such as Educational Psychologists and Speech and Language Therapists, have declined sharply.

The loss of this vital support, at a time when a growing number of young people are facing mental health challenges, is failing our young people while putting teachers and other staff at greater risk of verbal and physical assault. Meanwhile the problem is compounded by class sizes remaining high despite the Scottish Government’s 2007 manifesto promise to begin reducing them. 16 years on, young people, teachers and support staff in Scotland are still waiting…

As the composite motion that the EIS moved at the Trade Union Congress highlights, gender-based violence is a major concern in many workplace settings and this includes our schools. With 80% of the teaching profession in Scotland being women, the issue of gender-based violence is very real for many of our teachers. The EIS decided to survey school branches to ascertain the extent to which misogyny underlies the physical and verbal abuse that women teachers experience frequently, aside from incidences of sexual harassment.

While the reported increase in cases of violence in our schools is shocking, even more concerning is that such incidents are still under-reported. Historically, many teachers have been reluctant to report incidents of violence – for a whole host of reasons.

Teachers have often been encouraged to regard violence and aggression by pupils as ‘just part of the job’ (it should never be).

Some have been actively discouraged from reporting – violent incidents are not a good look for individual schools or local authorities with reputations to protect. Teachers have often been encouraged to regard violence and aggression by pupils as ‘just part of the job’ (it should never be), while others worry about the impact that a violent incident report could have on a young person’s educational progress. For some, the formal reporting of an incident, and all the bureaucracy involved, is just another added burden on top of an already crippling workload. And for what? EIS members state time after time that even after reporting violent incidents, little to nothing is done to support those who have been subject to the violence or to minimise future risks.

Worse still, teachers who report are often questioned as to what they could and should have done differently, effectively being blamed for the violent act.

The EIS is very clear – employees should be encouraged to report all incidents of violence, and employers must offer appropriate support to all staff who have been subjected to any kind of assault – verbal or physical. Sweeping the problem under the carpet is simply not an option – employers must act on their legal duty of care to their staff to ensure that workplaces are safe.

In June, at our own Annual General Meeting, the EIS launched its campaign entitled Stand Up for Quality Education. Tackling the issue of pupil indiscipline and enhancing support for young people with additional learning needs are two of the principal campaign goals. Our members have identified these priorities as essential to improving their working lives, and we believe that tackling these issues will also reduce the risk of staff facing violence in their employment.

Employers and government must heed the call, and commit to working with unions to ensure a safe working environment for all staff. In Scotland, the Scottish Government has set up a Summit on pupil behaviour to look at the issues following the recent upsurge in reported assaults. This was a welcome step, and the EIS and our sister unions will keep pressing to ensure that real action, and real investment, follow to help make the working lives of our members better and safer. Safety at work, after all, is the law, not a lottery.

– A version of this article was originally published in The Morning Star, to coincide with the meeting of the TUC.