There is a sea change in the approach to interacting with children in schools on the horizon.  After many years of established safe working cultures and practices in schools including no touch policies it seems that new government guidance on working safely with children and young people is imminent.  The new guidance will be designed to ensure that the law does not prevent necessary and appropriate physical contact between staff and pupils in schools.  The Coalition government have promised that the new guidance will be “shorter, sharper, clearer and more common sense on the subject of physical contact with children and young people in education.

There is an abundance of advice, guidance and information that exists about safer working practices when working with children and young people, including how to intervene when a child or young person is at risk of being harmed. Current government guidance gives direction on how to work safely in one to one situations, what the appropriate conduct and dress codes when with children and young people, providing personal care, how to safely control a child or young person when they are expressing challenging behaving, and so on.

Every school should also have its own set of safeguarding policies and procedures which should incorporate guidance on physical contact with children and young people, and should cover the subject in depth on staff induction procedures.  However, at the end of the day the principle of personal responsibility is paramount, and part of this involves knowing what is and isn’t safe working practice.

The coalition government has recently set out further details of plans to overhaul England’s schools system in its Education Bill.  Education Secretary Michael Gove says the changes will cut bureaucracy and give teachers the power to “restore order to the classroom”.  The Bill includes proposals which the Education Secretary Michael Gove says will give schools greater powers to discipline pupils, including:

  • Increased search powers for heads – to include pornography and mobile telephones and any items banned by schools
  • The removal of the power of appeal panels to force schools to re-instate pupils they have expelled
  • The granting of anonymity to teachers who have been accused of misconduct by pupils
  • The extension of heads’ powers to discipline pupils if they misbehave on the way to or from school
  • The granting of the power to schools to impose a detention without giving 24-hours’ notice

A poll of more than 850 primary, secondary and further education staff by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that while boys’ behaviour at school remains more challenging than girls, both have got worse over the past five years, according to more than half of respondents.

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “The behaviour of both boys and girls can pose huge challenges for those working in schools and colleges. Staff get ground down daily by the chatting and messing around, which disrupts lessons for other pupils and takes the pleasure out of teaching.

“Even more worrying is the physical aggression, most often among boys but also among some girls, which puts other pupils and staff at risk. Schools need to have firm and consistent discipline policies and work with parents to keep schools and colleges safe places for pupils and staff alike.”

The government has said that one of the reasons that good staff leave the teaching profession is because of poor pupil behaviour and part of the new Bill is intended to restore discipline and reduce bureaucracy.  The Bill will give teachers greater freedom to impose the penalties they need to keep order.

However, this month the government withdrew official guidance on behaviour and discipline in schools more than three months before it intends to publish revised rules.   The Department for Education (DfE) is consulting on new shortened pupil behaviour and discipline guidance due to be published in July.   Teachers should be aware that removal of the existing guidance before the new regulations are finalised means that schools will have no information to refer to if an incident occurs over the next three months.

This also means that schools will have to rewrite their policies and procedures when the revised guidance is issued in July in time for the beginning of the autumn term.   Part of the reason the government is revising the guidance is to make it easier for teachers to understand.

The new guidance is set to be about 50 pages long, compared to 600 pages under the previous administration.  A DfE spokesman said: “The old guidance was needlessly lengthy and repetitive and needed changing. The new advice, currently under consultation, is clear and concise and will help teachers maintain discipline in the classroom. This advice, which teachers have asked for, will be ready for use shortly. We trust teachers to use their common sense and experience in the meantime.”

Everyone knows that school staff are more than capable of exercising common sense.   Safer working practices mean minimising risk, and whilst there may be some merit in the opinion that no touch policies are unrealistic and impractical, those of us who work in educational settings realise the importance of taking personal responsibility for how others, including children and young people, may interpret our actions.

However, it is good practice that teachers and school staff are supported in having an established safer working culture and training in safer working practices to enable them to give their very best in what is sometimes a very difficult profession.

The Education Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on Wednesday 26 January 2011 and is now in Committee.  For more information visit:

http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/educationbill

For guidance on Safer Working With Children and Young People visit:

http://www.childrenengland.org.uk/upload/Guidance.pdf

http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationdetail/page1/dfes-04217-2006

For more information on the ATL poll see School students behaviourhas worsened over past five years, teachers say, (Janaki Mahadevan), 18 April 2011, at:

http://www.cypnow.co.uk/bulletin/cypnow_daily/article/1065950/school-students-behaviour-worsened-past-five-years-teachers-say/

[cta]The Athena Programme is a team of experienced professionals specialising in safeguarding with care and creativity.  Our goal is to help people protect children, young people and vulnerable adults and to make organisations, staff and working environments safer by providing training and consultancy that is dynamic, inclusive and relevant.

Call us now on 01200 428769.[/cta]