We need to talk about children’s safety, Jenny - Sue Webber

Recently I was told about an assault on an Edinburgh schoolgirl in a city park which put her in hospital with injuries to her head, face and hands.
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the LothiansSue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians

As if that wasn’t horrific enough, her attackers were classmates and neighbours and filmed the whole thing, presumably for the amusement of their associates. Understandably, the girl is now too scared to go to school.

Thankfully her assailants have been arrested and charged, but with the lenient attitude to such attacks when carried out by young people, they will probably be back in school before too long and the chances of their victim feeling secure enough to complete her education free from fear, as is her right, will be minimal.

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On Tuesday in the Scottish Parliament my colleague Jamie Greene asked the new education secretary Jenny Gilruth about violence in our schools, following reports of an incident in a Renfrewshire school in which three teachers and a 14-year-old pupil were apparently injured.

He cited some 75,000 physical or verbal attacks by pupils against teachers and school staff over the five years until the end of 2022, a figure most people would find staggering, given it does not include assaults by one pupil against another. Nearly 20,000 were last year alone, including 191 allegations of possessing a dangerous item or weapon.

Jenny Gilruth’s response was worrying in the extreme, because while accepting such incidents do occur, she insisted they were few and “not the norm”, but then revealed she won’t have an accurate picture of violence against staff in Scotland’s classrooms until the autumn.

She claimed her data had not been updated since 2016 “because of the pandemic”, which seems extraordinary given it didn’t start until March 2020 and has been effectively over for more than a year. It suggests a lackadaisical attitude to gathering such important information as safety in our schools.

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I found two other things particularly concerning in her answers, first that she claimed teachers are “equipped with the necessary skills and expertise to defuse challenging situations,” which seems to me to be missing the point.

Second, she insisted that “we should be mindful that we are talking about the impacts not only on staff but on our children and young people,” as if we’re not allowed to talk about it at all in case someone is upset.

If I was the mother or partner of someone who had been assaulted, I’d be more than upset if I thought the official attitude was to keep such things under wraps in case anyone got the wrong impression. From my experience of the whistleblowing inquiry at Edinburgh’s education department, more openness would have helped create a much safer environment for whole school communities than the culture of secrecy the authority appeared to foster, and which Jenny Gilruth seems to favour.

As Jamie Greene had to point out, 75,000 incidents in five years is not a few, and it’s a fair assumption there will be another 20,000 incidents this year.

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Nobody is suggesting there are easy answers but there needs to be some semblance of a plan and even though she’s only six weeks into the job, as a former teacher who is quick to mention her teaching union connections, complacency won’t cut it.

Sue Webber is a Lothian Scottish Conservative MSP