'Devastating toll' of attacks on teaching assistants revealed by study

Exclusive: Largely female and low-paid UK school staff report being kicked and punched by pupils.

Teaching and classroom assistants (TAs) working in mainstream schools in the UK have described being kicked, punched and spat at by pupils in a new study that explores for the first time aggression targeted at support staff, who are predominantly female and low-paid.

They told researchers they had been hit in the face, bitten, had objects thrown at them and received death threats, with incidents reported in primary and secondary schools. Their injuries included cuts, a black eye, a dislocated thumb, a broken finger and torn ligaments, according to the University of Roehampton study.

They also described the psychological toll of the incidents, complaining of stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, forcing some to take time off sick and even to retire early due to ill health.

The qualitative research, which is based on in-depth interviews with 16 teaching and classroom assistants who have experienced violence, follows a 2016 Unison survey of 14,500 support staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which found that more than half (53%) of TAs had experienced physical violence in the previous year.

The lead researcher, Dr Amanda Holt, said: “For the first time there’s an understanding of the ferocity of attacks on teaching assistants and their devastating physical and mental toll. This raises big questions about the expectation of schools, and in some cases insistence, that teaching assistants should be the first line of defence against pupils who display violent or aggressive behaviour.

“With the profession dominated by women, forcing them to become classroom enforcers could do long-term harm. This, combined with the role’s lack of professional status, risks creating an environment where violence becomes normal, particularly towards women.”

One assistant told researchers: “I was getting bruised on a regular basis, so I was having my face hit, punched ... kicked, spat at, bitten ... shouted at in my face.” Another, working on a one-to-one basis with a student, described how the violence escalated.

“He is quite aggressive, and most of it was directed towards me because I was the closest adult to him, so although I was worried about the other children, that would have been secondary really. All of his anger was directed towards myself. And he’s very physical.”

Sometimes the violence occurred in learning environments that did not adequately support children with special educational needs. In one case, the school was described as “organised chaos”; elsewhere, participants blamed poor management and cost-cutting. Fewer staff left those that remained more vulnerable.

One teaching assistant interviewed by the Guardian said she suffered a spinal injury after getting caught in the middle of a fight between a group of teenage boys. She was off sick for two years, gradually built up her strength to return, only to be assaulted and to have her walking stick kicked away. “I was off work again. I’d lost my confidence and ability to do everything I needed to.” She eventually took early retirement due to ill health and has depended on the support of her family since.

The study also documents concerns about the lack of consequences for pupils in some cases. “He came over and punched me in the face. And my colleague was like, “Whoa, that is totally unacceptable,” went off to get the Senco (special educational needs co-ordinator), who came back and took him away, and that was it.

“And then a little while later, the Senco came back with the boy and said, ‘You owe Ms *** an apology’, and he just looked at me and went, ‘Sorry’. And that was it, I was given the boy back and carried on working for the rest of the day.”

The report said it appeared sanctions would be put in place if a teacher or senior manager had been assaulted, but not in the case of assaults on teaching assistants. “This discrepancy made participants feel unsupported and un-valued, and raised concerns about the message this would send to students about the acceptability of such violence, particularly towards a staff group who were predominantly female, low paid and experienced low professional status.” Twelve of the 16 participants interviewed were women, and ages ranged from 28 to 62.

Unison’s head of education, Mike Short, said: “Improving the reporting process around attacks, providing staff with medical and psychological support and ensuring they don’t have to continue working with the young person who’s just assaulted them must be adopted as a matter of urgency."

“Low pay and high stress are already fuelling an exodus of teaching assistants. Expecting them to put up with attacks and assaults will force more out of the door, and that’s bad for pupils and schools alike.”