Safety in Schools: A Growing Struggle

School staff unions are grappling with growing rates of violence incidents. Resourcing pupil support and reversing budget cuts are the solution, writes Mandy McDowall.

In 2023 UNISON Scotland members in schools and nurseries took strike action to secure an improved pay offer. The action affected 24 out of 32 local authorities from the very north of Scotland to the border. Three days of strikes in the first wave followed by further selective action in a smaller number of councils brought COSLA back to the table with an acceptable offer.

But the days of action were much more than just about pay. Underneath the key strike demand there was a story. A story of a workforce under severe pressure, largely ignored by its education leaders, undervalued, and increasingly unsafe. The poor pay offer was simply the final straw.

On picket lines outside schools across the country, new issues came to the fore.

Long before the world had heard of Covid, UNISON members working in schools had been telling anyone who would listen about the pressures they were under. Year on year cuts had seen staff leave without replacement, increased use of temporary contracts, and more and more work. An increasing number of children needed support. Staff sorely felt the rise in injuries and assaults while carrying out their duties. But no one was listening.

So when the union balloted to strike in 2023 over another below-inflation offer, members were angry and frustrated, and they wanted to be heard. As local branches geared up for action, hand-made banners and placards displayed their demand for fair pay, but also for safe schools and respect. Across picket lines, members talked to each other about what they were feeling. Very soon their demands for better pay also became loud demands for better workplaces, safer school communities, and recognition for their roles.

After the pay dispute was settled, members’ feelings of anger and the momentum from the strikes hadn’t gone away. UNISON rolled out surveys branch by branch. The responses highlighted a worrying trend in under-reporting and lack of employer action in relation to violence in schools. Members also spoke of their frustrations at trying to meet the needs of children in school and the challenges faced increased numbers of children with ASN.

These responses reflected the union’s 2023 health and safety survey, which highlighted a marked increase in violent incidents across all Scottish schools. The picture was clear: violence in schools had reached a crisis point, and our members were at the sharp end.

The Scottish Government BISSR 2023 report supported what UNISON members were saying and acknowledged the challenges. It acknowledged the work that must be done but frustratingly for our members the government did not move fast enough. Now, almost weekly, there are media reports of school incidents, parents concerned about their children’s experiences in schools, and increased absence levels. And incidents of violence remain at their highest levels.

These incidents often arise when pupils’ needs cannot be met with the resources that are provided. Additional support is stretched to its limit, and staff have not got the resources or the training to support pupils whose behaviour may risk their own and others’ safety. Sylvia Haughey, UNISON Educations issues Group and Glasgow UNISON Education Convenor, explained some of the solutions to the Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee during their inquiries into Additional Support for Learning:

“We have to understand the neurodiverse brain, and we are not doing it within schools. But it’s the support staff that have to try and work themselves around this minefield. There is variety and diversity within schools, but the support staff have not been appropriately trained.

“They might say, ‘let’s do behaviour communication on an in-service day’, or ‘let’s do de-escalation training’. But if we can get our members out of cleaning cupboards on in-service and into that training, that would be advantageous. Doing it once a year, or once every five years – it’s not good enough.”

UNISON continues to demand resources and training so that our members can keep themselves, their colleagues, and the pupils safe. We continue to campaign for safe schools, and we encourage our members to report every incident. Too many incidents go under reported, often because when they are reported nothing gets done. UNISON held its first schools summit on violence in January 2024. We heard from staff employed in schools and nurseries who say that the current system is no longer fit for purpose. Many school buildings are no longer suitable for the needs of the children. The employers need to do more and better to support their staff. Then we can start to tell a different, better story about education in Scotland.

Mandy McDowall is a regional organiser for UNISON Scotland.