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Social media is fuelling violence in our schools

Willie Rennie MSP
April 14, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic casts a long shadow. Three years on, many people still struggle with the symptoms of long covid in their daily lives. The NHS in Scotland has suffered its worst winter crisis on record, and staff are burned out and exhausted. 

And in education, the full breadth of consequences that months out of school and years of disrupted learning have had on young people are increasingly clear. Violence in schools is one such consequence.

In January this year I saw a video of one girl violently attacking another at a secondary school in my North East Fife constituency, kicking her in the face. In some ways I wish I hadn’t. It was an ugly scene which will stay with me probably forever.

The incident was widely reported, and caused a great amount of concern in the local community. Many people think of this as a sleepy corner of North East Fife. But in truth such an incident came as no surprise to teachers and school staff across Scotland.

This isn’t a new problem - there has always been a level of violence in schools which is higher than is acceptable - but since the pandemic the problem has got so much worse. Since the incident in January I have heard from parents, teachers, staff, and continued to visit schools. Almost universally the message is that distressed behaviour amongst children has increased.

In part because of social media, violent incidents in secondary schools have received the most media attention. A video of a fight can be uploaded and watched by millions or spread quickly around a concerned local community. But perhaps even more worryingly, the majority of incidents are actually in primary schools, where they are not typically filmed and widely viewed.

It is clear that the current approach isn’t working. There is a conspiracy of silence amongst political and educational leadership which is leading to under-reporting. The first step is to face up to the problem and bring in robust measures of the number of incidents. 

It is also necessary to look at the current approach to behaviour in schools. One parent told me the current policy, ‘Getting It Right for Every Child’, had too often become getting it right for one child while the rest of the class must endure the disruption – and sometimes physical attacks.

There is a conspiracy of silence amongst political and educational leadership. Quote

Some say schools don’t exclude enough, that they are a soft touch, that the offenders must be punished, and the police should be called. It would be a sign of a failed system if the only answer was increasing numbers of young people condemned to the criminal justice system, probably for life.

Others suggest that everything was fine in the days of corporal punishment. I was among the last to be belted in Scotland as corporal punishment was abolished shortly after I left education. 

Yes, young people need to have boundaries but why would we ever want to teach them that the boundaries are enforced with violence? Especially as the majority of the incidents are in primary and special schools rather than those in secondary schools.

There is a balance to be struck here, between inclusion and clear boundaries, but none of this can be done on the cheap. There has been a fall in specialist teachers, long waits for mental health treatment, a reduction in classroom assistants, insufficient educational psychologists and not enough staffed spaces to provide appropriate support to pupils. The list goes on. That needs to change.

Through my work on the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee I have seen examples of how this can be done right. One school had experienced big issues with behaviour and performance. A new headteacher was brought in who built relationships with parents, engaged with their lives and brought in the a children’s charity, using the government’s Pupil Equity Fund. 

The charity gave the young people the tools to cope with the pressures of school and family life. The new leadership and the targeted support improved the performance of the school and pupils.

In other schools, however, staff were pushed to take strike action because they’d had enough of the violence and behavioural issues without adequate support. Quick as a flash, the resource was found, but it shouldn’t have taken a crisis for the resource to be brought in.

For many staff, teachers and pupils, violence is a daily occurrence. Too often they feel helpless and ignored. We must start listening and, more importantly, acting.

Official Portrait of Willie Rennie MSP

Willie Rennie is the MSP for North East Fife a former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

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