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Know your rights

You are allowed to physically restrain your pupils - but context is everything, warns Susannah Kirkman

You see a pupil tearing down a corridor, about to collide with another child; a pupil seriously disrupts your lesson; a group of pupils are fighting; a child is about to throw a computer out of the window. Are you allowed to intervene physically?

Some teachers are under the impression that the Children Act of 1989 makes any physical contact with children unlawful, but teachers are permitted to use reasonable physical force to control or restrain pupils, according to the 1996 Education Act.

A recent tribunal decision has also clarified teachers' rights when they are faced with a disruptive pupil. During a GCSE assessment, a Bournemouth music teacher physically removed a child who was disrupting the test. The school governing body dismissed him on the spot for gross misconduct. But the music teacher won his claim for unfair dismissal, and the school's appeal against this decision was thrown out by the employment appeal tribunal.

The tribunal ruled that if the headteacher was opposed to any use of physical force on pupils, this should have been made clear to the staff.

If school managers are against physical intervention, the tribunal said, a school policy should spell this out and explain that "any significant departure from the policy will be viewed as a potentially dismissable offenceI teaching staff must know what is acceptable and what is not".

Even in a school which has not banned physical force, teachers must take great care. You are not allowed to use physical contact as a way of punishing or humiliating a pupil. The child's behaviour or its consequences must also be serious enough to justify the use of force.

Whenever possible, before resorting to force, the teacher should tell the pupil who is misbehaving to stop. Anyone faced with more than one disruptive pupil, or someone with the build of an international rugby player, should not intervene but should summon help from colleagues or phone the police.

The main justifications for using force are to prevent a child committing a criminal offence, injuring themselves or others or causing significant damage to property, or behaving in a way that jeopardises order and discipline at the school or during a field trip. Physical intervention could be justified for a child who is about to cause an accident, a pupil who persistently refuses to leave the classroom when asked to, or someone who is vandalising property.

But you may use only "reasonable force". WWF-style neck locks are out, as are slapping, punching, tripping a pupil up, twisting or forcing limbs back and holding or pulling a pupil by the hair or ear, let alone holding a pupil face down on the ground.

You are allowed to interpose yourself between two pupils, block a pupil's path, hold, push or pull a child, lead a pupil by the hand or arm, or shepherd a child away by putting your hand in the centre of his or her back. In exceptional circumstances, when a pupil is about to hit someone or to step off the pavement in front of an articulated lorry, for example, you are allowed to use more restrictive holds.

Ideally, whenever staff have used physical force, this should then be described and recorded in an incident book. Schools are also advised to inform parents.

It is extremely important to find out what your school's policy is on the use of force; if anyone made a complaint against you after an incident, you would need to show that you had followed the school's line.

For further information, see DfES circular 1098, The Use of Force to Control or Restrain Pupils, at law10_98summary.htm

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