Force factor

11th September 1998 at 01:00
The Government's new guidelines on the use of 'reasonable force' to restrain pupils clarify powers that already exist under common law. But, say experts, physical tactics should always be the last resort. Victoria Neumark reports

Crash! A brick goes through a window. Teachers have a duty to protect property, but what can you do to three 11-year-olds on the rampage?

You walk out to your car in the dark. Two burly young men step out, members of Year 11. They don't look at all friendly. How do you protect yourself?

There is a scuffle in the playground. It's only eight-year olds, but a crowd is building and disruptive Year 6 children are egging it on with whoops and war cries. How do you stop it?

A hard stare, a whispered curse and suddenly two 14-year-old girls are pulling handfuls of hair. "Karen's got a knife, Miss!" calls out another student. How do you get help?

None of these scenarios is far-fetched. And this term new guidance from the Department for Education and Employment is designed to help teachers deal with them. By clarifying section 550a of the Education Act 1996 the guidance should allow staff to know what their legal position is in using "reasonable force" (a term in common law) to prevent antisocial behaviour.

Force, however reasonable, should be used only as a last resort, counsels the DFEE. Whole-school policies and training are advised. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the national charity for personal safety, agrees. The trust runs many courses for teachers, and believes that the answer lies in building non-aggressive communities to deflect violence. Learning a few holds is at best damage limitation, and at worst will escalate violence.

Sarah Simpson, head of training at the trust, believes schools must be permeated by an ethos of mutual respect with established non-physical ways of dealing with conflict. Although, as the circular states, it is vital that staff, heads, governing bodies, pupils and parents are aware of any written whole-school policy on the use of reasonable force, such policy and practice can only be a beginning.

"Teachers cannot be police officers, dealing with law-breaking and then leaving," says Ms Simpson. "They have to live with the consequences of their actions and the effects of their actions on continuing relationships."

Yet even in the most listening, caring school, problems will happen. Intruders, mental illness, family crises spilling over into the playground - all can occur out of the blue and present teachers with the need to use reasonable force to prevent more harm.

Perhaps the two most important pieces of advice are to think before acting and not to take any violence personally. If you do, you are far more likely to lash out and land yourself in further trouble. For that reason, too, teachers need to take a big mental step backwards and think "how can I take the heat out of this?" rather than "how can I save the day?" For Ann Coombs, senior trainer for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and an ex-teacher, the Government's guidelines are still not clear enough about what "reasonable force" consists of. Better by far, she argues, for the whole school to think and re-think its strategy for avoiding violence, and for such discussion to become built into everyday thinking about situations.

At the point when you are confronted by two burly aggressors on a dark night it will be too late to develop a school strategy for lone females leaving school late: think about where you park your car, about personal alarms, about carrying a torch, about being accompanied out of the building.

When a classroom fight breaks out you need a "second nature routine". Asking a pupil to go for help can inflame passions more; much more effective already to have the system of asking someone to take a special textbook to the office, a book which is code for "we need help". A gram of prevention is worth a kilo of cure.

Even if the guidelines do point to legal physical intervention (and as common law, this has yet to be fully tested in the courts), physical tactics may still be unwise. If children are fighting, for example, some simple steps like sending away any audience of their peers and reasoning in a calm voice should take the temperature down a degree or two. Don't touch!

"You must remember," she says, "that one person is unlikely to be able to break up a fight between two or more. If you haul one off, that does not mean the other will just stop. They are more likely to fly at you as well. " "You want," says Ms Coombs, "to end up with a win-win situation." Part of that will be thinking, as a whole school, how to make the experience of dealing with encounters less frustrating, for pupils, parents, visitors. Is there good signposting around the school? Is there enough space to play in? Can people vent their grievances early, before they build up? Do parents know they need an appointment to see the head?

If you do decide physical measures must be taken, be sure to have another member of staff present to help - and to act as a witness. As soon as possible, make full and accurate notes. This is to protect yourself in case of legal action.

Part of a successful strategy lies in learning to listen, so that even when people have not got what they want, they do not feel diminished. Part is getting pupils and teachers to look at conflict and conflict resolution, learning how to agree and disagree, compromise and back down. Part is developing policies so that in crises everyone has a sense of how automatically to react. And part - a very small part - is knowing what may be deemed reasonable force in a court of law.

DFEE Circular 1098 Section 550A of the Education Act 1996: The Use of Force to Control or Restrain Pupils.The Suzy Lamplugh Trust London SW14 8AS. Tel: 0181 392 1839. Training office 0181 876 0305


Application of force allowed where staff may need to

* physically interpose between pupils

* block a pupil's path

* Hold (but never round the neck or collar)

* push

* pull

* lead a pupil by the hand or arm

* shepherd a pupil away by placing your hand in the centre of the back

* in extreme cases (such as self-defence) more restrictive holds

But you should not act in a way that might reasonably be expected to cause injury

* hold round the neck

* restrict a pupil's ability to breathe

* slap

* punch

* kick

* twist or force limbs against a joint

* hold or pull by hair or ear

* hold face down on the ground

* Nor should you touch in a way that might be considered indecent


The use of force is illegal if physical circumstances do not warrant it. The force should always be the minimum needed

In what situations does the guidance apply?

* when a pupil attacks a member of staff

* when a pupil attacks another pupil

* when a pupil is engaged in, or is on the verge of committing, deliberate damage or vandalism

* when a pupil is causing, or at risk of causing, injury or damage by accident, by rough play, or by misuse of dangerous materials or objects (for example, in the lab or on the sports field)

* when a pupil at risk absconds from class or tries to leave the school

* when a pupil persistently refuses to obey an order to leave a classroom

* When a pupil is seriously disrupting a lesson

You must record all incidents involving force in writing at the time including:

* The names of everyone involved, time and place and names of any other witnesses

* How the incident began and progressed, with details of behaviour

* What everyone said, as near as possible

* What steps were taken to defuse the situation

* The degree of force used, how applied and for how long

* The pupils' response

* The outcome

* Details of any injury and of any damage to property

You are advised to:

* Report to the headteacher or senior member of staff

* Seek advice from a senior colleague or member of your professional association

* Keep a copy of the report

* Tell the parents immediately, orally or in writing, and give them a chance to discuss the incident


Recommendations from Suzy Lamplugh Trust

What is "reasonable force"?

The use of force is illegal if physical circumstances do not warrant it The force used should always be the mimimum needed


* It is better to defuse than intervene.

* Be sure that there are whole-school policies on violence and that everyone knows the same drill.

* Establish a code, like taking a specific book to a colleague, which is an alarm call for help.

* Drill everyone in leaving both classroom and , if necessary, playground.

* Talk over episodes together, find out what you think might have been a good response in difficult situations. Establish a culture of openness, don't hide behind a notion of professionalism. It is unprofessional not to report incidents.


* Get rid of non-combatants: violence thrives on witnesses.

* Don't put yourself at risk: alert colleagues, enlist their help.

* Assess a situation first.

* Be calm, don't take it personally.

* Use verbal intervention first.

* Think about surprise and noise as more useful than force: a personal alarm or a bucket of cold water may be much more effective than another body in the fray.

* It may be worse than useless to add another person to a gang situation: better to call the police.


* Minimise the number of people who may be affected. Protect yourself as much as possible.


* Identify the perpetrators. Consider whether the police could then deal with them better.


* If you stop a pupil leaving the premises, think what you do next. You cannot imprison him or her.

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