Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
The Secret Carer
Features Writer
1:55 AM 1st March 2020

Protecting The Most Vulnerable In Society

Do you really know what goes on in your child’s special school or, for that matter, mainstream school? Are you a parent, grandparent or carer to a vulnerable child with special needs?  Are you concerned that their behaviour is starting to be labelled as challenging?  

You probably still assume that a school for children with special needs will have empathetic and, above all, compassionate staff who are fully aware that “behaviour is a child’s form of communication” and who will do everything possible to discover what that child is trying to say.

Behaviour Policy

I would caution you to think again.  Check the school’s Behaviour Policy very carefully, and frequently you will find written within that policy a paragraph stating that a school can use a high level of physical restraint, isolation and seclusion on your ‘challenging’ child as long as the school regard it as ‘proportionate’ and ‘reasonable’ at the time. This is the law. Legally they don’t even have to inform you that they are physically restraining your child or give the reasons why, and they can increase the level of restraint as and when they feel it is necessary.

This is the same for mainstream as it is for special schools. However, in the latter you are dealing with vulnerable children who don’t understand cognitively what is happening to them and are rarely able to learn from their mistakes. They are further discriminated against as the majority of children at special schools are unable to articulate clearly to others how they feel or relay what is happening to them when there.  Even if they did, they are simply not believed: they are not regarded as reliable witnesses. Such restraint can go on for a considerable amount of time without your knowledge until an incident is serious enough to start to raise your concern, but by then it is often sadly too late.

Chill-Out Rooms

Apart from the numerous physical restraint moves that schools are allowed to use (and you will not find these explained or demonstrated anywhere on the internet as they would cause a public outcry), schools have the power to put your ‘challenging’ child in a tiny, often darkened, windowless room to ‘relax’ and ‘chill out’.  If a school feels more ‘relaxation’ is required, a timer can be put directly in front of their eyes which is stopped and restarted every time your child protests. All of this is legal. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is truly shocking to recognise that the sorts of physical interventions that schools can employ—quite legally—would be criminal offences in any other environment. Assault and even actual bodily harm on a child are condoned, so long as the teacher or teaching assistant carrying it out believes it is proportionate. It is also a legal duty for the head and governing body of the school to support the restraint that their member of staff performed. Actions that could and would lead to prison sentences anywhere else are positively supported.

Every school will tell you that restraint techniques on children should be 95% de-escalation and 5% physical intervention as a last resort. This is subjective and entirely dependent on that practitioner’s ability to understand the concept and subtleties of de-escalation and to be able to practise it effectively. 

More worryingly, if your child has numerous or rare medical conditions, schools do not appear to be legally obliged to consult a medical professional to check whether restraint is safe and appropriate for that particular child.

Being a parent or carer of a child with complex special needs is a relentless daily struggle in order to get the very best provision and to keep our children safe, healthy and in many cases, alive. When we hand over our vulnerable children to a school, we have to trust implicitly that they will be treated with an appropriate level of human dignity and respect.

Do Your Homework

To parents and carers looking for a new school, I would say this: do your homework, check the behaviour policy, get recommendations, ask questions from parents whose children have attended or have been excluded, and contact local parent forums using social media. Rarely will restraint or behavioural management be alluded to in an Ofsted inspection report and, if it is mentioned, you know that they have a BIG problem and to stay away. Don’t ever assume that this won’t happen to your child just because they are currently well behaved. Children grow, develop, mature, reach puberty, nothing is certain.

What is certain, however, is that there are also dedicated professionals who go above and beyond what can reasonably be expected for our children. And, equally, there are amazing special schools that do strive to understand our children and demonstrate a tolerant and caring approach, however difficult and inconvenient it might be to their working day. They also act early to bring in the appropriate specialists and professionals who all work together as a team to find early solutions. Most of all, they keep our special needs children safe and happy, which for the majority of parents and carers is all we ever want for them. 

So to these schools and professionals....and you know who you are, I need to say a heartfelt thank you, and I know my child will be safe in your hands. 

To the former, I need you to understand that the emotional, psychological and physical damage that you have inflicted, not just on my child, but on many, many other vulnerable children in our society will take a considerable time, or even a lifetime, to heal.... and that will be your lasting legacy.

We must hope that our society and future government is such that change is around the corner. Scotland has already started to implement change. Campaigners such as Beth Morrison are striving to make this happen within the rest of the UK.

10 Feb 2020. The Rrics Report: ‘Reducing Restrictive Intervention of Children and Young People’ recently launched in the House of Lords.

11 Feb 2020. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched a formal inquiry into how schools in England and Wales are monitoring and recording their use of restraint and use of restrictive interventions, following concerns about its use and lack of data available.