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Opinion: We must make our schools safe

Friday, September 1, 2023

Violence in schools is a national emergency and demands emergency action

By Louise Gilmour, GMB Scotland secretary


Imagine going to work in fear. Imagine leaving home in the morning expecting to be physically assaulted or verbally abused. Imagine working in Scotland’s schools.

Jenny Gilruth is a former teacher so should have a better idea than most politicians about the crisis in our classrooms. If she does, our education secretary needs to act like it.

Certainly, unless things have got uglier at Holyrood, she will not fear being spat on at work, or punched, kicked and bitten. She will not be hit with a chair, have rocks thrown at her head, or have someone chop at her hair with scissors.

As we reveal today, all of the above and more are being endured on a daily basis by support staff in Scotland’s schools.

Of course, focus has been on teachers and pupils as the Record’s commendable campaign exposed the sheer, horrifying scale of the emergency but without janitors, cleaners, catering staff, admin workers, and classroom assistants, our school gates would remain locked.

These men and, more commonly, women are not just support staff, they are essential staff and, like all of us, deserve to feel safe at work.

That should not be a high bar and it indicts our education authorities that so many schools are no longer places of safety for pupils or staff.

It should not need said but many of these workers - going to work in fear and returning home with relief - are among the lowest paid local authority staff and currently being offered a pay rise that does not come close to meeting the rising cost of living.

What is happening in our schools is a national emergency but what is being offered to these crucial workers, the people who keep Scotland running, is a national scandal.

Their frontline testimony sounds more like accounts of battle-hardened bouncers or prison officers and, among the bruises and broken bones, the insults and abuse, shines the same commitment to their job. If only their managers had the same commitment to protecting them.

Their stories demand to be heard and, more importantly, trigger urgent, effective action.

Many, however, have clearly lost faith in management’s ability or willingness to protect them from violence never mind halt it.

Only one in four feel completely safe at work while most believe incidents of physical assault and verbal abuse are not even recorded never mind investigated.

It does not seem too cynical to suspect that failing to record these incidents is no accident in schools reluctant to acknowledge the wave of violence crashing through their classrooms, corridors and playgrounds.

It cannot go on. The imminent summit on violence in schools must detail measures to protect staff, improve safety training, and ensure incidents are properly recorded, investigated and learned from.

Of course, the underlying reasons for the explosion in violence since our children left lockdown must be analysed and explained but, right now, the staff and the pupils they care for must be protected.

Our schools need to be safe again. That should not be too hard to imagine.