Hundreds of 'restraint injuries' at special schools

Date: 14th April 2017
Category: Right to life, survival and development, Restraint, Disabled children, Education, Leisure and Cultural Activities

Hundreds of children have been injured while being physically restrained in special schools, according to figures obtained by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Local Authorities. The figures revealed at least 731 injuries in the past three years.

A Freedom of Information request to local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales revealed 13,000 physical restraints in the past three years, resulting in 731 injuries. Less than a fifth of authorities were able to provide the data - with most saying they didn't keep the information, suggesting the final number of injuries caused by restraint in special schools is far higher.

Beth Morrison from Dundee launched a national campaign after her son Calum sustained injuries at his special school while being restrained. She said she became worried when her son came home from school with bruising on his arms and spots on his chest consistent with haemorrhaging caused by being restrained.

The FOI investigation found less than one fifth of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales held any data about the use of restraint in special schools in their area.

- In England, only nine out of 153 local authorities provided the BBC with figures. Of those that did, there were 6,262 reports of restraints, resulting in 360 injuries in the past three years
- In Scotland, 17 out of 32 local authorities provided data, reporting 4,383 restraints and 157 injuries
- In Wales, 11 out of 22 local authorities provided data, reporting 2,182 restraints and 214 injuries
- The Education Authority of Northern Ireland told the BBC they did not hold the information

The Local Government Association said it takes safeguarding responsibilities "extremely seriously" but "the current system works on the basis that schools...have the primary responsibility". The Department of Education says it plans to publish draft guidelines on reducing the need for restraint in special schools shortly.

Evidence from Together's State of Children's Rights in Scotland report

A number of treaty bodies have made recommendations relating to the use of restraint on children and many of Together's members share these concerns, particularly that there is still no guidance in place on the use of restraint within non-residential educational settings.

Residential settings: The terms 'restraint' and 'seclusion' are not clearly defined in Scottish legislation or regulations. National 'Holding Safely' (2005) guidance is in place for practitioners in residential child care which reflects that restraint must not be used as a form of punishment, and only as a last resort. This guidance was updated in 2013 to provide more detailed information about the use and minimisation of physical restraint in residential care establishments, and extended to include children with a disability. It is not known to what extent this guidance is implemented. National Guidance for the External Management of Residential Child Care Establishments in Scotland published in 2013 clarifies the role of external managers in having an oversight of incidents of restraint, as well as complaints from children and their families.

Concerns remain that restraint in residential care can be used excessively, and that its use is an inappropriate reaction to challenging behaviour rather than a last resort. UK research has thrown light on the current extent of abuse in residential and foster care. Nineteen local authorities in Scotland returned information on allegations of abuse. In relation to residential child care, the report found that one-half of cases concerning residential staff were categorised as either physical abuse or use of excessive physical restraint and generally involved staff reacting inappropriately to challenging behaviour by children. Little is known about the use of restraint in foster care settings in Scotland.

Non-residential settings: There is no guidance in place on the use of restraint within non-residential educational settings. Scottish Government's 2013 guidance on supporting people with learning disabilities, Keys to Life, acknowledges that 'there is still a lack of clear guidance [on restrictive interventions] or standards for use' in relation to people with learning disabilities. The use of restraint and seclusion in schools for children with disabilities continues to be inadequately monitored. Children with a disability are more likely to be restrained if their disability presents as 'challenging behaviour'. Restraint can take a number of forms beyond the use of 'approved holds', such as the inappropriate use of wheelchair harnesses.

Currently, Education Scotland has responsibility for inspecting and reporting on the quality of education across all types of provision, but does not have a specific role to ensure appropriate care and dignified treatment. This lies within the remit of the Care Inspectorate but only in the setting of registered care providers. This means that there is a gap in protection for some vulnerable children who attend special schools or units which are not registered care providers.

Concerns around restraint being used in non-residential schools for children with learning disabilities led to a public petition in 2015 calling for national guidance on restraint and seclusion in schools. The Care Inspectorate stated that it could support the development of such guidance. In response to the Public Petition, Scottish Government committed to incorporate further guidance on physical restraint and exclusion within the refreshed 'Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: A Positive Approach to Preventing and Managing School Exclusions' (IEI2). The Children and Young People's Commissioner for Scotland has expressed concern that this approach does not allow for full exploration of the impact of restraint and seclusion on children's rights and may miss opportunities to highlight indicators of abuse.

A number of Together's members have been clear that any guidance must be developed in partnership with children with complex additional support needs, their parents/carers and educational staff. It has been noted that disabled children were not included in a consultation on whether to produce stand-alone guidance for the use of restraint on disabled children in schools.

There are concerns that Scottish Government has advised that 'local authorities should monitor, record and review any incidents involving physical restraint and seclusion using their own reporting mechanisms'. Without consistent data and analysis across Scotland on the number and proportionality of restraints taking place on disabled children, any misuse of restraint is likely to remain hidden.

Children with a disability may have limited communication, which can make raising a complaint about restraint or its use by particular staff members very difficult. National guidance could be drafted to allow for some degree of local flexibility, as supported by the Children and Young People's Commissioner.

Recommendations: Scottish Government should ensure that restraint against children is only used as a last resort and exclusively to prevent harm to the child or others. It should never be used to deliberately inflict pain. All methods of physical restraint for disciplinary purposes should be abolished.

All institutional settings, whether run by the government or by private or voluntary organisations, should be open and transparent about their approaches to discipline and behaviour management. Scottish Government should introduce a robust and comprehensive national recording system to provide consistency in monitoring the use of restraint across all settings.