On 22 August the 1,200 pupils of St Kentigern's Academy, a Roman Catholic secondary in Blackburn, West Lothian, returned after a seven-week break. A week later the school was the subject of a generally favourable inspection report from Education Scotland. Then, last Friday, barely a month into the new term, a 14-year-old boy was slashed in the face with a kitchen knife which had allegedly been brought into the school. A 13-year-old boy appeared in court yesterday (Tuesday) charged with assault to severe injury and permanent disfigurement.
Although the inspection report was overlooked in the superficial media reporting of the incident, it can now be read in the light of what happened so soon after its publication. Is there anything in the document which might throw light on such a random act of violence five minutes before the start of an ordinary school day in a crowded dining hall?
The basic statistics introducing the report suggest a challenging environment: a quarter of the pupils – 300 – live in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland; a fifth are from ethnic minority groups; a quarter have additional support needs. These facts are plain enough, but we then come to a narrative so riddled with management-speak that it might almost have been designed to obscure rather than enlighten.
'Most young people are polite and are considerate of their peers, however, a few do not demonstrate positive behaviour in classes, corridors or social areas.' How many is most? How few is few? This assessment could mean anything or nothing. But it is a model of clarity compared with most of the document.
What are we supposed to make of the following fairly typical observation?
Although the vision, values and aims have a high profile across the school there is scope for them to underpin development work and therefore have greater impact in the life and work of the school. As planned, the school community should work together to refresh the vision, values and aims to ensure full ownership.
Read this report from start to finish and you will be no wiser about whether the incident last Friday morning might have been anticipated. But while the bureaucracy of Scottish education retreats behind jargon and euphemism, the noble aspiration to 'vision, values and aims' – fully owned or just occasionally rented – sits uneasily with the reality.
Last week, as well as the slashing of the St Kentigern's Academy pupil and the confiscation of a knife from a primary pupil on a school bus in the Highlands the same day, there was a further incident at Knox Academy in Haddington, already notorious for the serious burns inflicted on a member of the school orchestra when her rival in love put drain cleaner down her viola case. The culprit, a fellow musician, is now serving significant time in a place where most of the notes are discordant. But there has been no respite for her former school. Sadly, the new term at Knox has begun as badly as the old one ended: with an alleged assault by a male pupil in which a 14-year-old girl is reported to have suffered a fractured jaw.
Elsewhere, Irn Bru has been used as a weapon in two recent incidents. Just outside Caldervale High School in Airdrie, a 12-year-old boy, the victim of bullying which had been reported to his teachers, had it poured over his head and was then pushed into a pile of dog dirt. At Levenmouth Academy in Buckhaven, built at a cost of £44m and opened earlier this year by cabinet secretary John Swinney, a 14-year-old boy was charged with assaulting a teacher by throwing a can of the stuff at her head. All things considered, there might be a case for an Irn Bru amnesty at the gates – even if the national drink 'made from girders' does help to refresh the vision, values and aims of Scottish education.
Levenmouth is an interesting case. Created by a merger of two old-established secondaries, it is one of the largest schools in Scotland – a product of the governing party's addiction to the notion that bigger is better. As soon as it opened, pupils from the rival predecessor schools began fighting each other, a state of virtual anarchy which provoked the threat of a strike by the beleaguered staff. Undaunted, the Scottish government has gone on to champion the building of a 'superschool' in Kilmarnock of 2,000+ pupils, again as a result of merger, again an invitation to turf warfare.
Every time there is an outbreak of violence in a Scottish school, the authorities give an assurance that such incidents are 'extremely rare.' This platitude was duly rolled out after the knifing of the boy at St Kentigern's Academy and, with particular emphasis, after the fatal injuries inflicted on Bailey Gwynne by a fellow pupil at Cults Academy, Aberdeen. No good purpose is served by this policy of deception – for deception it is. Schools are no longer safe. They are increasingly dangerous: for teachers as well as pupils.
If you doubt it – and prefer to swallow the patronising guff peddled in the interests of avoiding public alarm – take a look at the official figures from Edinburgh, where attacks on classroom staff by pupils have more than doubled in the last three years. In 2014-15, there were 405 such assaults. In 2016-17, there were 1,006. Among the more spectacular incidents, one support worker was knocked out and hospitalised, while another required a tetanus jab after being bitten.
Edinburgh accounts for 7% of Scotland's school population. If it is typical of the rest of the country – and why should it not be? – 1,000 assaults in the capital last year translate into 14,000 in Scotland a whole. Most involve routine kicking and throwing of objects, with only the occasional employment of hammers. In Edinburgh, the annual toll of staff casualties works out at an average of more than five assaults a day across 190 school days in 2016-17; and, if Edinburgh is broadly representative, an average of 74 a day in Scotland.
Even in the face of this horror story, there seems to be a reluctance to involve the police. Earlier this year, a senior teacher at a primary school in Barrhead was taken to hospital after being attacked by a pupil. Despite the fact that the same teacher had been assaulted on several occasions in the past, East Renfrewshire Council acknowledged that the matter was being dealt with internally, that Police Scotland had not been notified and that such incidents were – stand by for the mantra – 'extremely rare.' Just as they are 'extremely rare' everywhere else that school violence occurs.
Andrew Lowe, in his heavily redacted report on the Bailey Gwynne case, called for teachers to be given the power to search pupils for weapons. Cabinet secretary Swinney rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would alter the teacher/pupil relationship. Mr Swinney seems to be unaware that, since he was a pupil at Forrester High School in Edinburgh in an era almost beyond recall, the teacher/pupil relationship has been altered beyond recognition. Mr Swinney should get real. If he visited the science lab, he would discover that the genie popped out of the bottle some time ago – and that they couldn't put it back again.