The right of teachers to use reasonable force is laid down in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The latest guidance is not the result of any change in the law, but compared with previous versions it offers more detail about the kind of situations where force is acceptable: to stop children from fighting, for example, or to make a pupil leave the classroom if they "persistently" refuse.
However, on the key point of what constitutes reasonable force, the guidelines are still vague. "As things stand, whether or not force is reasonable is a matter that is determined in court, on a case-by-case basis," says behaviour expert Paul Dix of Pivotal Education consultancy. "This means teachers are being asked to rely on their instincts and to make very fine professional judgments."
Legally, the guiding principle is that teachers may use a level of force proportionate to the possible consequences of a situation. So if a pupil attacks another child with a knife, you are entitled to use greater force to stop them than if they were just pulling the other child's hair.
But any kind of physical intervention is a risky move. Last year, special school teacher Michael Becker was found guilty of assault, not because magistrates felt he was wrong to remove a boy from his classroom, but because they felt he did so in an unreasonable way.
If you do have to use force, it is important to protect yourself from accusations.
"Firstly, be sure you have tried all other means to de-escalate a situation," says Mr Dix. "If force is necessary, then send for support straight away: the more teachers who are present, the better. And keep talking all the time, in a calm voice, explaining what you are doing and why. That way, it is clear to everyone that you are in control of your emotions. Record the incident immediately afterwards."
Remember, too, that while using force can land you in trouble, so too can standing by and doing nothing, since duty of care laws require you to do all you reasonably can to protect children's welfare. "You can't say that you will never use force," explains Paul Plummer, of Silvermill, which specialises in physical intervention training.
"I once restrained a boy who was about to jump out of a window. A few days later, I was questioned by the police but completely exonerated, whereas if I had not done anything to stop him there might well have been repercussions."
It makes sense to have at least one member of staff trained in physical intervention methods. Some companies, such as Silvermill, will tailor the techniques they teach according to the type of school and the age of the pupils. But in any case, says Mr Plummer, there are golden rules that all teachers should know: don't pin children to the ground; don't obstruct their breathing; and never apply pressure to joints.
"And in all of this you have got to think of your own safety," he says. "Don't be afraid to intervene, but do be sensible. You wouldn't necessarily get into a physical confrontation with a 16-year-old on the streets, so be careful about doing it in school."
What the guidance says
- Force may be used to prevent pupils committing a criminal offence, injuring themselves or others or damaging property.
- It may also be used to maintain good order and discipline.
- It is unlawful to use force as a means of punishment.
- Incidents where force is used should be recorded and parents informed.
- Schools should not adopt a `no-contact' policy.
- Teachers have a duty of care to pupils, but are not required to put their own safety at risk.