How violent are British schools? With the awful news that a schoolteacher, Ann Maguire, was stabbed to death, apparently by a pupil, in front of her class in a Leeds school on Monday, it might be tempting to assume they’re pretty bad. The media are full of terrible stories of knife crime and violence in the playground, and the murder has brought to the surface calls for greater security in schools. But it’s worth, as always, looking at the numbers.
The really heartening thing is that there really aren’t any “numbers” to look at, when it comes to the murder of teachers by pupils. There hasn’t been a single one for 19 years, when a headmaster, Philip Lawrence, was stabbed by a pupil from another neighbourhood school after he tried to help a child who was being attacked. The reason that Mrs Maguire’s murder was so shocking is that events like it are, mercifully, almost unheard of.
Of course, there are other types of violence than murder. In 2010, David Cameron mentioned the statistic that 17,000 teachers were attacked by pupils “in a typical year”. It’s not quite as straightforward as that, as Channel 4’s Factcheck pointed out: there were 17,870 “fixed-term exclusions” for “physical assaults against an adult” in schools in 2007/2008, but that includes attacks on teachers, janitors, parents and all other adults (some of whom were no doubt unlucky enough to suffer repeated attacks, so the total number of adults attacked would have been smaller). But he wasn’t wildly off.
He’s roughly right that it’s a “typical year” as well; the years since have seen slightly smaller figures, but not much:
But what’s worth noting is the “permanent exclusions” column. Every year 17,000 pupils have been sent home for an unspecified but limited period for some sort of physical assault on an adult. But that will include kids sent home for a day for pushing a teacher; not acceptable, of course, but we can all remember troubled children who did that sort of thing in class. It’s a crude metric, but presumably if you do something really awful, you’re likely to be permanently excluded. The number of children permanently excluded for attacking adults has remained in three figures the whole time.
You can argue, if you like, that those figures aren’t high enough and the extreme sanction of expulsion from a school should be used more often. But the fact remains that severe violence against schools is very rare. There are 8.2 million children in state-funded schools in Britain, according to Gov.uk, and 438,000 teachers. Even if David Cameron had been right, and 17,000 teachers ar eattacked by pupils every year, that would only be about one teacher in 25. He wasn’t right, so it’ll be significantly fewer than that; and again, even if he had been right, only about one in 1,000 would suffer an assault sufficiently serious for the child to be excluded permanently.
Of course, there’s more violence in schools than simply that against teachers, but even so, it’s pretty rare. There are around 60,000 fixed-term exclusions and roughly 1,000 permanent exclusions per year; in a population of 8 million, that works out as less than 1 per cent of children temporarily excluded for violence; only one pupil in 10,000 is permanently expelled for it.
Again, this isn’t the whole story, and I’m sure the correlation between exclusions and actual violence isn’t perfect. But it hardly speaks of a wave of violence throughout our state school system (there have been shocked reports that 1,000 children have been caught carrying weapons in the last three years; that is one-80th of one per cent of the school population, and thus not very much). In America, the spectre of mass shootings, like the one in Newtown in 2012, has led to many schools installing expensive security equipment, such as X-ray machines. But even in the US, the odds of being killed at school are near-negligible. The case for draconian, disruptive security measures is debatable at best there; it is ridiculous here. The murder of Ann Maguire is appalling, but it’s very much a one-off.