School staff are "covering up" pupil violence and aggression because of fears that reporting such issues will result in a "black mark" against them, according to a union boss.

Seamus Searson, general secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said Covid had created pressure to “make allowances” and play down signs that "bad behaviour levels are increasing in all areas”.

He told The Herald he was particularly concerned about S1-3 pupils and warned that two years of upheaval - in which much of the available teaching resource was directed towards senior learners – had left them feeling frustrated and neglected.

Mr Searson also said adequate investment in specialist staff would be vital to avert a future “storm”. He added: “We need more additional support needs teachers, more educational psychologists, more nurses, more pupil support assistants.”

READ MORE: School safety fears as proportion of pupil exclusions for violence rises

His remarks follow a high-level meeting between SSTA bosses and the Scottish Government in which pupil behaviour was the main topic.

The Herald understands ministers were warned of growing anxiety about disruptive and abusive learners whose conduct results in teachers being diverted from core duties to tackle issues for which they lack training. These include complex problems connected to areas such as health, social care, nurture, and trauma.

The SSTA is also worried about the tendency to “blame” teachers for serious misbehaviour. It feels schools are becoming increasingly unsafe and has stressed that educators often have to turn to Dignity and Respect at Work policies to obtain protection.

The concerns come after official data revealed a sharp drop in pupil exclusions. Figures for the state sector show that, in 2020/21, just one learner was “removed from the register”, which is when an excluded individual does not return to their original school and is instead taught elsewhere. This is down from 3 in 2018/19 and 60 in 2010/11. The 2020/21 session also saw 8,322 cases of temporary exclusion compared with nearly 15,000 in 2018/19 and 26,784 in 2010/11.

Education officials have stressed the fall in 2020/21 can be partly attributed to the pandemic, which saw national and local school closures, as well as high rates of pupil absence.

The Herald: Seamus Searson, SSTA general secretary, said teachers were under huge pressure not to "make a big issue" out of deteriorating pupil behaviour at school.Seamus Searson, SSTA general secretary, said teachers were under huge pressure not to "make a big issue" out of deteriorating pupil behaviour at school.

However, Mr Searson said the statistics reflected a drive to mask and “contain” bad behaviour within schools. “Teachers are prevented from reporting all of the incidents,” he told The Herald. “They’re expected to contain children who are exhibiting those issues. 

“Local authorities measure headteachers by the number of exclusions. If you have a lot of exclusions, you’re considered a poor headteacher, so they avoid exclusions to avoid getting a black mark against their name.

“Teachers are encouraged not to make complaints about youngsters because, if there are no complaints, then the authorities don’t have to deal with them. Teachers are covering up the problem of bad behaviour because it’s a black mark against them if an exclusion happens.

"If, a few years ago, a youngster would have been excluded for violence or attacking a teacher, they would not be now. You think, ‘where is the line being drawn?’. The line is being rubbed out."  

He added: “Teachers don’t disagree with the nurture approach but don’t have the time or knowledge to deal with it properly. They’re not educational psychologists or social workers – but there’s an expectation that teachers should somehow be all of these things and teach at the same time. And if a situation becomes serious and a report is made, it comes back that the teacher has failed.

"We need more specialists working inside schools alongside teachers. All of the support agencies that were there in the past – and which are expensive to provide – have gone because of the public spending cutbacks." 

READ MORE: New education agency plans 'risk repeating past mistakes'

Mr Searson also acknowledged figures indicating that the proportion of known exclusions linked to fighting and physical violence had increased. “Those are going up and it’s the frustration among the youngsters at what’s going on,” he added.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Violence is never acceptable and the safety of pupils and staff at school is paramount.

“We advocate an approach for schools and local authorities to work with pupils on the underlying reasons behind inappropriate behaviour. We are supporting a number of programmes to promote positive relationships and tackle indiscipline, abuse and violence.

“We have been clear with schools and local authorities that exclusion should be the last resort. Our guidance sets out that there are additional factors that need to be considered when a child or young person has a disability or an additional support need. The guidance places greater importance on preventative approaches, including good behaviour management.”