Restraint is not a power play

27th July 2012 at 01:00
Be very careful when following the latest guidance on physically restraining pupils, warns Paul Dix

Children die in restraint. That is why we have laws to protect them. It is why we are so careful to act in their best interests. It is why we need to resist putting hands on angry children, even when more hotheaded adults might.

It is also why we should be very careful about sending bad advice to schools.

I spent two years working on the Restraint Advisory Board for the Ministry of Justice looking at restraint in the under-18 secure estate (young offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children's homes). I learned a great deal about the consequences of restraint, the risks to health and just how easy it is to perform a good technique dangerously.

The huge amount of care taken by everyone involved to protect children and officers, to get a "safe as possible" system in place and to bring all expertise together was phenomenal. We spent hours watching demonstrations, visiting institutions, viewing evidence and talking to officers and young people. The work was painstaking.

Then the Department for Education guidance on restraint was published. To call it "back of a cigarette packet" stuff would be too generous. It does not draw from work on restraint with young people in custody, even though they are often the same kinds of children. It is not the result of hard-fought best practice or hours volunteered by experts in the field. Instead it references work from 2003, from policing guidelines based on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and work done on restraint in medicine in 2008.

It echoes discredited practice, encourages unnecessary restraint and is laced with the language of an older, more aggressive culture.

Take the opening statement: "School staff have a legal power to use force and lawful use of the power will provide a defence to any related criminal prosecution or other legal action ... Senior school leaders should support their staff when they use this power."

That is a lot of "power". In a context where children have died as a result of restraint, "power" is an odd word to emphasise. Between the lines, the document encourages teachers to grab hold of children. Great. So if you are prosecuted will your "legal power" provide a defence? Certainly. Will it stop you being found guilty? Er, no.

And then there is this: "Any policy on the use of reasonable force should acknowledge their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children and children with (special educational needs)."

"Reasonable adjustments" for those children is a legal minefield. And you are crossing it on a pogo stick. This is not advice. It is worthless waffle that ignores years of expertise. Sometimes documents do need to be weighty. Some aspects of working with children are more complicated than a few sheets of A4.

"Schools do not require parental consent to use force on a student."

I do not require parental consent to pour ice cream on the head of a Year 3 child, but that does not mean there would not be consequences.

"Reasonable force can be used to prevent pupils from hurting themselves or others, from damaging property, or from causing disorder."

"Causing disorder" could not be much broader. Would shouting count as "causing disorder"? Insolence? Looking at me in a funny way? Also, is there an official tariff for damage to property? A yank on the arm for abuse of a pencil; a full arm lock for kicking a door; a three-person intervention for carving "cock" into a desk? Restraint, it appears, is being sanctioned by the DfE for reasons that would not stand up in court.

Inappropriate language

"In a school, force is used for two main purposes - to control pupils or to restrain them."

I thought that this was about restraining children with proportionate force to keep them safe. Through a few words the game changes: "to control pupils"? We don't even allow force to be used for "control" in secure training centres.

What are teachers being encouraged to do? Just what sort of "control" issues are we expected to lay down our careers for? Restraint is about safety, not "control" or authority.

Teachers do not want to restrain children. Those who have no option hate doing it. Nobody wants restraint placed at the end of their discipline system. Quite apart from the legal and moral aspects, the other children will see the line being crossed and react accordingly.

The document is a mishmash of dangerous suggestion, half-baked advice and crude understanding of best practice. It plays to the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade. It is laced with language that echoes a culture we worked hard to adjust. "Force", "control" and "power" have no place in guidance on keeping children safe.

It should be withdrawn immediately before someone gets hurt, and placed in the hands of people who care about children. Children have died in restraint.

Paul Dix is touring UK schools with his behaviour Inset, keynotes and one-man show, The Behaviour Show. www.pivotaleducation.comkeynotes-2. Twitter: @PivotalPaul.

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