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18,000 pupils suspended from Northern Ireland schools - teachers sign up for self-defence classes

Exclusive: Staff fear for safety as tide of indiscipline rises rapidly over three-year period

By Luke Barnes

Published 22/10/2016

One Northern Ireland school issued nearly 800 suspensions in that three-year period.
One Northern Ireland school issued nearly 800 suspensions in that three-year period.
Avril Hall-Callaghan, the general secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, said unruly behaviour was a daily reality for staff

School classrooms have become so unruly that self-defence courses run for teachers are now regularly oversubscribed.

The warning comes after it emerged that almost 18,000 suspensions had been issued in Northern Ireland in just three years.

It includes thousands of cases of violence involving pupils.

One school issued nearly 800 suspensions in that three-year period.

St Joseph's Boys' School in Londonderry dished out 773 from 2012 to 2015 - more than one every day of the school year.

The number of suspensions increased by 94% in the three-year period, from 168 in 2012/13 to 325 in 2014/15.

The principal of the school declined to comment when contacted.

In total, there were 16,802 suspensions across Northern Ireland secondary schools between 2012 and 2015.

A further 976 primary school pupils were suspended, including 355 in 2014/15 - the most recent year for which figures are available.

That is up from the 273 suspensions in 2012/13.

Teachers' unions said the wider issue of indiscipline in the classroom has reached crisis levels.

One said the problem is so bad that self-defence classes are packed out.

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said staff were working in an increasingly hostile environment.

"The fact is that school budgets are stretched to breaking point," he said.

"Class sizes have risen. Pupil to teacher ratios have risen and schools are, increasingly, asked to take on and solve the burdens of society.

"As a teachers' association, we run more courses in self-defence and on managing classroom behaviour than ever before. These courses are usually oversubscribed.

"The statistics, shocking though they are, are probably under-reported."

Statistics on school suspensions were obtained by this newspaper via the Freedom of Information Act.

A breakdown of the reasons for suspensions shows 5,115 cases of persistent infringements, 3,824 cases of staff being verbally abused and 3,565 physical attacks on pupils.

Disruptive behaviour accounted for 1,615 suspensions, while 739 were for damage to property.

The average length of a secondary school suspension was two days.

There were only 976 suspensions in primary schools over the three-year period. However, physical attacks on staff was the top reason for suspensions, with 255 incidents.

Avril Hall-Callaghan, the general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said unruly behaviour was a daily reality for staff.

She said teachers were dealing with a tide of indiscipline because of a cultural shift in how society viewed education.

"So many more children with very specific learning needs are now in the mainstream education system, yet the resources for them and the teachers just aren't there," she added.

"We need to focus on the right to learn of all pupils, and how to devise systems which make sure that pupils with additional needs have those needs met, so their understandable frustrations do not interfere with the learning of other pupils.

"Although the vast majority of students are well-behaved and a pleasure to teach, poor behaviour is now a daily reality for many staff."

The UTU warned that compensation pay-outs to teachers were set to dramatically increase unless a "zero-tolerance" policy was adopted towards bad behaviour.

Barry McElduff, who chairs the Stormont education committee, said it was vital to examine the reasons behind the "worrying disconnect" between some pupils and education.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, a member of the education committee, said he was concerned by the scale of indiscipline.

He said he planned to raise the issue of suspension levels as part of the committee's enquiry into underachievement in our schools.

"The department needs to assess why some schools have higher rates of suspension then others, as it indicates that some have issues that need looking at," he said.

He added that, while the figures don't tell the full story behind the reasons for the high suspension levels in some schools, there were clearly patterns that need to be addressed.

Mr McGrath added: "Even the figure that showed 355 primary school pupils being suspended last year. To have that number, which is more than one a day, from primary school students is obviously a bit concerning."

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: "Handling of suspensions and expulsions is an operational matter for schools in which the department has no role, although schools are required to notify the Education Authority immediately in writing whenever a pupil is suspended."

She added: "It would be inappropriate of the Minister to comment on the application of discipline policies within individual schools, when he does not know the circumstances within the schools, nor those which may lie behind each individual disciplinary case."

If you are a teacher who has been affected by these issues and would like to speak to us, contact newseditor@belfastteegraph.co.uk

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