Crumbling concrete, sexualisation and violence: how safe are our schools?

5 January 2024

Education Team Assistant Emily Bourne explores the sad reality that many children are currently not safe in school

The safety of children should be the first concern of parents as they seek to raise their sons and daughters.

Recently, the safety of children has become as much of a priority in schools as the very education they provide. Although a modicum of risk is inevitable and possibly helpful as we grow and learn, there is an overriding responsibility under God to make sure that no irreparable damage comes to the children in our care. And so, it is important to consider the following question: can we assume that the schools of our nation are, on the whole, safe?

How do children feel?

A report in the Guardian back in 2007 had this headline: ‘Many children don’t feel safe in English schools’. England was ranked 37th out of 45 countries and provinces in a global league table, which had Russia, Morocco and Iran with better records for protecting children from injury by other pupils.

It was shocking to read just how many children had been, or feared being, injured by another pupil while at school. Fast forward to 2023 and a report of secondary school students showed that 1 in 10 missed school in a six month period because they didn’t feel safe, with only a quarter of them seeking any help from staff. In the final year of secondary school, 13% of pupils stated they felt “not very safe” or “not at all safe”. The rise in the number of children experiencing mental health issues is well documented: tragically, over 200 schoolchildren – 4 every week – are lost to suicide every year.

Given that children who attend school will spend about one fifth of their week there, it is important to question how the education environment may be affecting the mental health of our children. This isn’t to say schools are the only factor, but it is important to look at the evidence and children’s perceptions to consider whether they really do have grounds to feel unsafe in school.

How do teachers feel?

Teachers do an incredible job. Tasked with solving almost all the ills of society, many will go above and beyond to ensure that children in their care have enough food to eat and suitable clothes to wear. This work has no doubt been invaluable to vulnerable families during these difficult economic times.

However, many teachers are leaving the profession, and a significant reason for this is because they do not feel safe.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) latest workforce data showed that 39,930 teachers left the profession in the 2021/2022 academic year for reasons other than retirement. This amounted to around 8.8% of teachers in the sector, which is an increase from only 7,800 in the previous year.

Qualitative analysis in 2018 showed that teachers were leaving the profession for a range of reasons, but a significant aspect was the stress created from dealing with violent behaviour.

One explained,

We had children with significant behavioural difficulties, children who were probably acting out older sibling gang-related stuff. Children wanting to run the class themselves, very oppositional and defiant, very aggressive. This is [the] first time I have felt personally afraid…”.

This is an increasingly common scenario. Teachers seek to persevere, and work hard to bring order to their classrooms, but they often do not have the resources to be able to manage these complex situations which leaves them feeling vulnerable and unsafe.

Physical and verbal abuse

Violent behaviour is a major problem in our schools. A 2019 survey conducted by a teaching union found that 1 in 4 teachers had experienced physical violence towards them on a weekly basis.

Nine in ten said that they had received some form of verbal or physical abuse in the past year.

Similarly a University of Roehampton study, conducted in October 2022, concluded that physical attacks, including being kicked, punched and spat at by pupils, are taking a “devastating toll” on teaching assistants with 53% of them experiencing physical violence in the past year. It was only a few months ago that it was revealed that a teenage boy had stabbed a teacher in a school corridor in Gloucestershire.

There are also concerns about violence associated with drugs as a result of ‘gang culture’ which is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. Staff at a third of secondary schools in England believe that their pupils are involved with such gangs. In addition, the DfE is apparently aware of reports that schools are also being targeted by violent extremists and are subject to bomb threats. This is understandably not widely reported.

This is contributing to schools being under pressure regarding significant safety concerns, with staff feeling not only undervalued and overworked, but unsafe, with as many as 66% saying they have considered leaving the teaching profession altogether because of the unremitting pressures they are facing. This itself is a concern as it could result in situations where schools are not able to meet the minimum levels of staff required to look after children safely.

Sexual harassment

We have long reported about the harmful nature of explicit Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) teaching which has prompted many concerns, even from the Prime Minister himself.

We are seeing the effects of this kind of oversexualised and inappropriate content being played out in a variety of ways. For example, 90 percent of schoolgirls have received unsolicited sexual images and been subject to sexist name calling. Whilst this can also affect boys, it seems that girls are feeling particularly anxious about gender neutral toilets, which has resulted in many staying at home when menstruating and many risking dehydration by reducing their drinking at school to avoid the need to use the bathroom at all. All because they simply don’t feel safe.

Students at Weston Secondary School in Southampton recently protested over rules that meant boys and girls were to use the same toilets.

The scale of the evidence has led to Ofsted requiring schools to assume sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are as yet no specific reports of it.

Shockingly, 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes. That may equate to a rape in school every day of the school year. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps more shockingly, children often do not see the point of reporting it because it happens so frequently. This is hard to hear, and it doesn’t happen in every school, but it is important for us all to be aware so that we can make informed decisions about how we can best keep our children safe.

Air pollution

The above details could be described metaphorically as a toxic atmosphere. But there is also a literally toxic atmosphere around many schools in this country.

It is estimated that 3.1m children in England go to schools in areas with toxic air. This tends to be an issue particularly affecting larger cities. 98 percent of schools in London are in areas exceeding World Health Organization pollution limits, compared to 24 percent outside of London.

This is an issue which many may not be aware of since, unlike other dangers, this cannot be physically seen, and yet research suggests that there is a significant link between poor air quality and asthma as well as other medical conditions which can affect children. Attempts are being made to address such pollution, but they will take time to have an effect.

Crumbling structures

And then there is the fabric and structure of school buildings themselves.

In the summer of 2023, just before children returned from the summer holidays, the government announced that more than 100 schools would have to close immediately due the presence of a crumbling concrete known as RAAC. However, it was reported more than a year ago that 1 in 3 school buildings included materials either at the end of their shelf life or that pose a “serious risk of imminent failure.” Data showed more than 7,100 schools were given the worst possible rating for at least one aspect of their buildings.

Related to this, the DfE reported a number of years ago about the presence and problem of asbestos in schools. A 2019 DfE survey suggested that around 81 per cent of primary and secondary state schools in England still have asbestos “present on their estate, despite the use of asbestos in any form having been banned in the UK since 1999.

Concerns have been raised about the amount of asbestos remaining in dilapidated schools and hospitals and, according to official data, there have been 94 deaths among education professionals since 2017 potentially related to asbestos.

One of the ways the government can afford to fund schools for children is for school buildings to be big and to hold a large number of pupils. These large buildings may have the capacity for thousands of children. But the larger the buildings, the more complex and expensive it can be for them to be regularly and effectively maintained and repaired.

For whatever reason, it is clear that this area has not been prioritised and the result is that some children are now fearful of going to school in case the building literally collapses around them.

It is difficult to imagine a situation where we would knowingly send our children to places which are structurally unsafe and are surrounded by toxic air. And yet this is what is happening almost every day across the country. That such basic levels of safety cannot be assumed raises multiple questions about where children are most safe.

Safer at home?

Home educators regularly face the criticism that children should be at school where they are safest and best placed to be well educated.

As the government and various think tanks push for more regulation of those educated at home, it is argued that children are not safe unless they are in a school environment where the state can monitor and look after them.

However, there is no research to back up this claim and the evidence presented in this article paints an opposite picture. The truth is that the child’s home is a far safer place than the local state school.

Despite having twice as many referrals to social services as children in school, often due to unwarranted suspicion and stigma associated with home education, these referrals lead to only around one fifth of the number of Child Protection Plans (CPPs) compared to children of parents whose children attended school. CPP rates of electively home educated children are half that of school children.

This evidence can be used to counter calls for more state regulation in this area. We should seek to challenge the underlying assumptions about how we keep our children safe, and that the home of a child in the vast majority of cases is truly the safest place to be.

We can do better!

The fact that the government and related organisations are admitting there are problems of safety in these areas is important to understand.

Politically, education is likely to be a critical issue at the next general election.

What could you be saying to your parliamentary and local authority representatives to make sure these issues are recognised?

The purpose of highlighting these safety issues is not about to shame schools or teachers, but to highlight the scale of key safety issues which are often not understood together.

You can use this video to help you find ways to positively influence your local school were possible. In addition, where you see your school doing things well, do take time to encourage them. Where Christians are thoroughly engaged in their local state school, the Lord can be truly honoured.

However, there will be times when it is necessary to point out the flaws in the system and remove children for their own safety. This is why many are turning to home education as an alternative. But for others this isn’t an option, which is why we are also supporting groups from across the UK to open new Christian schools outside of the state system.

It is important to put the Lord first in our education decisions regarding His sons and daughters and not to unthinkingly or unprayerfully rely on the state for the education and safety of our children.

The more genuinely Christ-centred schools and homes there are, the more we can keep children safe from the various harms of the secular world and provide them with the tools to help them take their place as his people in society.

We can do better for the next generation – they have been created for a wonderful purpose. While they are young, it is up to us to keep them safe, to teach them these truths and to provide them with the education they need. How might you be part of this in the year ahead?

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