Teachers strike over violence at £34m school dubbed ‘not fit for purpose’

A teacher with a classroom of pupils
A teacher with a classroom of pupils

Teachers are on strike at a modern, open-plan £34 million school that has been dubbed “not fit for purpose” and blamed for violent pupils.

The staff claim they have been made “punchbags” by some of the children at Pencoedtre High School in Barry, South Wales, unveiled by the Labour-run Welsh Government just a year ago.

Unions say teachers have to lock doors of the secondary school to protect themselves and their classes from violent teenagers.

London-based architects designed the “sustainable communities for learning” school. It has large open balconies around a central “heart space” of dining hall, main hall and terraced courtyard.

But the design has been blamed for violence – with 136 exclusions at the 1,100-pupil school since term began in September.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said the open-plan design was contributing to poor behaviour.

Debra Thomas, interim head teacher at the school, admitted that it was “painful” to say that the “design of the building is quite a big issue”.

Mixed space leads to altercations

Staff say the central location of the school’s “Successful Futures Centre” allows large groups of children to mix, resulting in altercations.

Mark Harris, national executive member of NASUWT, said: “The design of new school buildings is remarkably poor. They are designed as if they are office spaces and they are not.”

Sharron Daly, a union official, said staff at Pencoedtre High were taking industrial action because “they feel at the end of their tether” over behaviour issues.

She added: “The building is not fit for purpose. The physical make-up of the building is not going to help this situation and the situation needs to change.”

Ms Thomas said the school building was “very open” and that this “facilitates large groups to form”.

Ms Thomas said she was committed to bringing in extra staff to break the students apart.

She said: “Getting suitable staff is a problem, but it is something the school is committed to doing.”

Architects HLM, based in Aldgate, designed the school paid for by the Welsh Government. At the time the company said: “The new school will improve the social and cultural well-being of its users and facilitate a larger range of different learning requirements, intertwining both social and educational environments – a school for boys and girls to thrive.”

Teachers ‘dread’ work

Neil Butler, NASUWT teachers’ union national official for Wales, said: “You can’t knock down that building and start again.”

But NASUWT said teachers “dread” working at the school.

It accused the local Vale of Glamorgan council of “failing to adequately protect the health, safety and well-being of our members and the majority of the pupils they teach”.

Miss Daly said that since the start of the school year, there have been more than 50 serious health and safety incidents, involving violence, or threats of violence from pupils towards staff and other children.

She said: “The threat was violent pupils. Pupils threatening physical harm to other pupils. Each incident has been either physical violence to pupils or staff or the threat of physical violence. Levels of pupil indiscipline there have been truly shocking. Staff dread doing duty there.

“It is the most basic of employee rights to be able to do your job without verbal and/ or physical abuse. Nowhere should this be more true than in a school, where our members are employed to educate not to restrain, or to lock doors to protect other children in their care from the threat of assault, or to be used as punchbags.

“Teachers are employed to teach and they simply cannot do that when faced with violent or extreme behaviours.”

A joint statement from the Vale of Glamorgan council and the headteacher said: “Both the council and school are disappointed by this strike action, which comes at a time when Year 11 pupils are sitting important examinations and Year 13 students are preparing for upcoming A-Level exams.

“We are fully aware of the issues affecting staff and are working with the NASUWT to resolve them.

“The work taking place has been discussed with the trade union in regular meetings and includes steps to improve the working environment and update the school’s behaviour policy.”

Staff walked out on strike last Wednesday and a further five days of walkouts are planned for Jan 18, 24, 25, 31 and Feb 1 unless the dispute is resolved.

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