School support staff face violent attacks from pupils, with some receiving death threats, new research finds

Teaching assistants have reported being kicked, punched and spat at by pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools, new research by the University of Roehampton released on Monday 17th October finds. 


The analysis is the first to look at the violence and aggression faced by teaching and classroom assistants in England, Scotland and Wales. Extensive data already exists into pupil-on-pupil violence and aggression towards teachers and senior managers. 


University of Roehampton criminologist Dr Amanda Holt led the qualitative research that involved in-depth interviews with 16 teaching and classroom assistants. 


All described being the target of student aggression in a range of ways, including being hit in the face, punched, kicked and bitten. Researchers found that in several cases staff reported receiving death threats from pupils.  


Physical injuries included cuts, a black eye, a dislocated thumb, a broken finger and ripped ligaments. Staff also reported a range of psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression. Two workers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.


The report also noted that the response of schools to attacks was sometimes inadequate. Teaching assistants felt the message from their employers was that it was their job to manage pupil violence. This, combined with their low status, normalised violence against them.


The report includes guidance on the steps schools should take to better protect teaching assistants in future. UNISON helped recruit the support staff who took part in the research and is rolling out the new advice on dealing with violent behaviour. 


Lead University of Roehampton academic, 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 knowledge will help schools better understand and improve their response to violent behaviour by pupils. Setting out the steps every school should take to protect staff and support them in the aftermath of an attack is an important first step. 


“The shocking experiences described by staff who took part in the research reflect a much wider problem highlighted in an earlier survey by UNISON. This found that 53% of teaching assistants had experienced physical violence from students in the previous year*. 


“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. As pupils become adults this worrying development could have serious ramifications for society.” 


UNISON head of education Mike Short said: “Teaching assistants are the backbone of every school, but their wholly unjustified, low professional status is stopping some schools from seeing their true value and vulnerability. 


“Schools seem to have forgotten that without teaching assistants risking their health, and that of their families, during the pandemic, schools would have been closed to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. 


“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. This would also be helpful to pupils given the stress and disruption to learning that violent behaviour can cause. 


“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.”