Violence Towards Teachers

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Russell Findlay Russell Findlay Conservative

2. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of increasing violence towards teachers and students in schools. (S6O-02847)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

No teacher, member of staff or pupil should have to suffer abuse in our schools. Last week, the final stage in the behaviour summits concluded with a wide range of stakeholders on behaviour in our schools. The behaviour in Scottish schools research—BISSR—which provides the accurate national picture in relation to behaviour in Scotland’s schools, was also published last week.

Although the BISSR set out that the majority of our pupils are well behaved, there has been a marked increase in disruptive behaviour since the research was last carried out in 2016. I have been clear that it is unacceptable and that it will require a co-ordinated response that recognises that schools cannot manage that shift in behaviour on their own.

In my statement to the Parliament last week, I confirmed that a multiyear plan is in development to tackle instances of challenging behaviour, working with local authorities, trade unions and others.

Photo of Russell Findlay Russell Findlay Conservative

The Scottish National Party is entirely responsible for trashing Scotland’s education system. A key reason for our children being so badly failed is that classroom discipline has collapsed, with teachers and pupils suffering unprecedented levels of violence. However, as with the SNP’s weak justice system, those who are responsible know that there is no punishment and no deterrent. What does the education secretary have to say to teachers, who just want to do their jobs, and to pupils, who just want to learn in safety?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I am sorry to say to Mr Findlay that the way in which we approach our education system is very different from the way in which we approach our justice system. In my statement to Parliament last week, I was keen to set out the work that we do with our local authorities on recognising the importance of having a national approach to supporting better behaviour in our classrooms. In last week’s statement, I made it absolutely clear that the changes that we have seen in behaviour since 2016, when the research was last carried out, are unacceptable—they are unacceptable for our teachers and for our young people. Last week, I set out a five-point plan to tackle behaviour in Scotland’s schools.

Therefore, I very much recognise the challenges that exist here, but the point that I was making to Mr Findlay in my initial response was that schools cannot do this on their own. We need to have a co-ordinated response that seeks to engage, for example, our health professionals in speech and language provision—we heard contributions from other members on that point last week—and that helps to support consistency in relation to how behaviour management policies are applied. That is a matter for our teachers, whom I trust to deliver behaviour management policies in our schools.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

A number of members want to ask supplementaries. I will try to get them all in.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

The “Behaviour in Scottish Schools 2023” report that was published last week highlighted that poverty can have a clear impact on behaviour at secondary level. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the extension of the sanctions regime that was announced last week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the continued commitment of the Westminster parties to austerity could have a knock-on impact on how some of the most vulnerable young people fare at school?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I think that Bill Kidd is absolutely right. Having taught hungry children, I know exactly how poverty interacts with our education system. That is a damning indictment of the way in which the United Kingdom Government has organised its approach to supporting some of our most vulnerable, which is having an impact in our classrooms. We saw that borne out in the programme for international student assessment evidence that was published—[

Interruption

.] I hear chuntering from Conservative members, but I have to say that the actions of their Government at Westminster are harming the outcomes of the young people in Scotland’s schools today.

The Government is taking the action that it can to protect our young people from poverty. That is why we are investing in the game-changing Scottish child payment as part of a package of measures that means that an estimated 90,000 fewer children will live in poverty in Scotland this year. We also have the most generous free school meals provision in the UK. I wish that other parts of the UK would echo our approach, as that support has been pivotal to the progress that we have seen being made in relation to our young people. Those are the SNP’s values in action. The contrast with the actions of a Tory Government that is driving more and more of our children into poverty could not be starker.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

The cabinet secretary mentioned PISA. This week’s results must be a wake-up call. The crisis in behaviour in schools is impacting attainment and causing standards to drop. The issue is no longer only about young people feeling safe; it is about the future of our entire education system.

The Government said that it needed to listen before it acted. Pupils, teachers and parents have spoken, yet the Government’s response is lacking. It has blamed teachers, abandoned pupils and sidelined parents. When does the cabinet secretary intend to get serious about the issue, show the leadership that our education needs and come back to the chamber with specific actions to further address behaviour in schools?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I am somewhat disappointed by Pam Duncan-Glancy’s comments. It will take more than one parliamentary statement to solve the problem. We need parents to be part of the solution, which is exactly why I engaged with the National Parent Forum of Scotland on this very issue only last week. Pam Duncan-Glancy talks about engagement with the profession. I met our trade unions yesterday, and we had a good discussion about some of the collective action that we can take.

The Government cannot do this on its own, but I accept my responsibility, as cabinet secretary, in setting out a national action plan. I very much hope that Pam Duncan-Glancy will work with me on the issue, recognising that there needs to be a co-ordinated response to the challenges that are presented in relation to behaviour. I think that she is right in the point that she made about PISA. We need to have a co-ordinated response that recognises the challenge and does not accept the current situation as the new normal in our education system. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can members listen to the questions and, indeed, the answers?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

This week, I met a headteacher who has more than 20 years of teaching experience across different areas of Scotland. She told me about the violence and abuse from pupils and parents, and its impact on other pupils and all levels of staffing. She spoke of the enormous workload, budget cuts, low staff morale, being unable to meet children’s needs and feeling helpless in a system that she says is broken. She has now resigned. The Scottish Government’s response is to offer more training for teachers. Does the education secretary really think that a teacher of that experience just needs more training?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I do not know whether Beatrice Wishart was in the chamber last week when I gave my response to the behaviour in Scottish schools research, because that was not at all my response. I point out that we provided additional funding for those who work in learning support because that independent research showed our learning support assistants asking for that additionality.

The issue is not just about staff training; it is about a post-Covid societal shift, and one that is happening not only in our schools. There are challenges playing out in all our communities and constituencies that we are all very well aware of, including antisocial behaviour on some of our buses and some of the challenges that we face in our justice network. It is not just about schools. We should be mindful of societal shifts since the pandemic.

We are trying to work with our local authority partners in relation to the changes that we have seen in our young people and their behaviour. Ms Wishart spoke about violence; I think some of the most shocking parts of the BISS research published last week were those about the challenges caused by some of our youngest children. We know that the transition for some of our youngest pupils from early years into primary school has been extremely traumatic. Those young people were out of formal education during national lockdowns and during industrial action, so their education was disrupted. On Ms Duncan-Glancy’s point, some of the impact of that disruption is now playing out in relation to the PISA results, and we need a holistic response to that.

I am sorry to hear the story that Ms Wishart outlined about the person who has left the teaching profession. We need more people working in Scotland’s schools to support our young people and I commit to coming back to Parliament next week to give a fuller update on our response to the PISA study.