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A quarter of primary school teachers suffer mental health problems after dealing with disruptive pupils – ATL survey

30 November 2009

Conducted by the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) for ITV1's Tonight programme, the survey results paint a challenging picture of classroom life for teachers in UK primary schools with many suffering loss of confidence, stress, and even physical harm because of disruptive pupils. Overall, more than three-quarters of teachers say their jobs are more difficult as a result of disruptive pupils and almost two thirds have witnessed physical aggression from their pupils.

The rise in disruption and aggression means it is becoming harder to teach primary pupils, according to the ATL leader, who has appealed for parents to support teachers' efforts to improve children's behaviour.

The poll will feature in Chris Tarrant: Who Wants To Be A Teacher? Tonight' on ITV1 Monday 30th November at 8pm. 

Its findings reveal:

  • More then half [55.1 per cent] of primary school teachers believe the behaviour of primary pupils has become worse over the past five years.

  • Over three-quarters [76 per cent] say that pupils are becoming more aggressive at an earlier age.

  • 59 per cent of primary school teachers say that their colleagues have experienced physical aggression in school from pupils.

  • Two in five [40.5 per cent] teachers have suffered a loss of confidence after dealing with disruptive pupils. 

  • Over a quarter [26.5 per cent], have suffered from mental health problems and one in six [16.7 per cent] have suffered physical harm as a result of dealing with a pupil.

  • Well over half [59.8 per cent] of the teachers surveyed have a disruptive pupil in their class and more than a third [34.3] have previously taught one.  59.8 per cent of these teachers have dealt with a pupil's physical aggression, nearly 60 per cent have dealt with verbal aggression, such as shouting, insults and threats, and a quarter [26.5 per cent], have dealt with intimidation.

  • Of the physical aggression witnessed from disruptive pupils, nearly four in five [79.1 per cent] have pushed or shoved another pupil or member of staff, three quarters [75.6 per cent] have kicked, more than two thirds [71.1 per cent] hit or punched and more than a third [34.2 per cent] bitten another pupil or member of staff. 

  • In the last year, almost half [44.7 per cent] of teachers have had pupils excluded from their school for poor behaviour.

  • 85.7 per cent of respondents believe that a whole school behaviour policy (a consistent policy communicated across staff, parents and pupils) is most effective in managing pupil's behaviour.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "Teachers are telling us that children are becoming aggressive or highly disruptive in class at younger ages.  It is making it even harder to teach primary children.

"Schools need to have consistent behaviour policies, but it is equally important that parents support these policies.  More and more teachers tell us that they are having to set-up parenting classes as some parents are struggling to deal with their children's behaviour.

"Teaching is a challenging and rewarding job, but if teachers have to battle with difficult behaviour in class other pupils' learning is disrupted and teachers lose the enjoyment."

You can read more about the survey here.

Teacher comments

A teacher from Norfolk:
"I have had a cricket bat thrown at me and a chair thrown by a five year old. Many children have aggressive tantrums."

A teacher from London:
"Last year I had two boys who made teaching almost impossible. Despite having 25 well-behaved children and a few challenging ones, those two boys made me dread every day.  Every day was an ordeal and their behaviour and moods were unpredictable. Sometimes they would disappear together, leaving the classroom or playground without permission. They threw things across the room and out of the window."

A teacher from Northern Ireland:
"Last school year, I taught easily the worst class of my career and I qualified in 1992. They were just a really bad mix of children with so many issues, behaviour problems etc. that took up most of my time. Everything just took so much longer with them and I didn't get the whole curriculum taught to my usual high standard. They had no respect for me, or each other. It never stopped. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and never felt like I could relax with them and have a laugh."

A teacher from Surrey:
"Almost all the disruptive pupils at my school have been transferred in the last few years from other local schools. It seems that parents choose to keep giving their children "fresh starts" rather than accepting there may be problems being involved in sorting them out. I feel under extra pressure to be a disciplinarian. In short I don't enjoy my teaching as much as I did even just 5 years ago!!"

A teacher from Macclesfield:
"It is all very well having all these behaviour policies, but if all staff do not apply them, we are on a loser. Everyone bangs on about their Rights, but ignores the flip side of that - their Responsibilities. Some children are not acquainted with the word "no" that means "no". We are not social workers, nor should we have to be."

A teacher from Hampshire:
"The behaviour of even the youngest children in foundation stage has deteriorated markedly over the 13 years I have been teaching. I consider myself to be an effective classroom behaviour manager and find that now I need all the skill and strategies I can muster to manage to teach to the level I want to, rather than simply crowd control."

A teacher from Devon:
"I assisted a female member of staff to restrain a boy who kicked, punched, pulled her hair and swore at her because he didn't want to do as he was asked."

A teacher from Cheshire:
"In my current school it has become acceptable for staff to be physically assaulted by some pupils. In one case, a TA was kicked by (a pupil). The child left the head's office after this incident with a headteacher's award sticker! Staff can be kicked, punched and have things thrown at them. The head's response is usually to send them back to class as quickly as possible so they 'don't miss lessons.' Pupils are excluded, but it is for behaviour which is 'more extreme' than just assaulting a member of staff."

A teacher from Wiltshire:
"Increasingly, I am having to cancel teaching, or am interrupted due to requests from staff to help deal with disruptive pupils.  I am having to spend a lot of time giving parenting advice as many parents are failing to provide adequate boundaries for their children - the children rule the home. This is despite support from locally provided and funded Targeted Mental Health Support.  There are an increasing number of children coming in to reception without the speech, communication and language skills (including attention and concentration) to access the curriculum.

A primary school teacher:
"Parents are also becoming much more aggressive. They have shouted abuse at staff in front of their children and others when invited into school to help diffuse difficult situations.  It appears that the teachers are always to blame!"

A teacher from Lincolnshire:
"It is concerning to have so little support from parents when dealing with their disruptive children. They are quick to imply that the children are not a problem at home. It cannot simply be a fault with the school when there are three children from one family who all exhibit similar behaviour problems - refusing to do their work, throwing equipment around the classroom and hitting members of staff."

A teacher from Lancashire:
"The behaviour of children in schools has deteriorated considerably in the last few years. They are beyond being disciplined, will not accept any authority and are determined to disrupt everyone else's learning. It makes teaching impossible."

For further information please contact the ATL press office on 0207 782 1589, visit ATL's website www.atl.org.uk, or contact Fiona Galliver, ITV Publicity Manager, 020 7157 3025, fiona.galliver@itv.com

Notes to editors

  1. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.

  2. ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.

  3. ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.

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