The trouble with intervention: rough justice for teachers

12th June 2009 at 01:00
When violence erupts in school, teachers have a legal right to step in. But increasing numbers are finding themselves facing police investigation for assault following complaints from pupils or parents, as David Marley reports

Having to restrain a pupil intent on committing a violent attack is an unenviable scenario for any teacher.

But when police are called, an already shocking situation all too often takes a turn for the worse. According to teaching unions, rather than the police investigating the pupil, unfounded allegations increasingly lead to the finger of suspicion pointing at the teacher instead.

This is exactly what happened to a 45-year-old teacher last month when he restrained a teenage boy who lashed out with his elbows and his fists. But it was the teacher who ended up answering questions on suspicion of assault (see box, right).

Events of this type are fuelling concerns about the vulnerability of teachers who intervene physically when pupil behaviour gets out of control. Special-needs teachers, who encounter the most severe behavioural difficulties, are said to be especially at risk.

"There is no doubt that the situation is getting worse," said Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"There are far more people finding themselves at the wrong end of this. And the problem is getting worse in mainstream schools as well as special schools because of the inclusion agenda.

"In allegations arising from restraint, teachers are guilty until you prove yourself innocent, not the other way around."

Figures on how often teachers use restraint and how many allegations arise from these cases are not regularly collated, making it difficult to draw comparisons over time.

But a consultation by the Department for Children, Schools and Families on how allegations of abuse against people who work with children are handled gives an indication of the scale of the problem.

It reports that in 2007, more than 4,000 allegations were referred to local authorities during the six months between April and September. Of these, almost half came from education, compared to 21 per cent from social care, the next highest sector. And of the 1,925 allegations from the education sector, 13.3 per cent followed a member of staff carrying out an authorised physical intervention or restraint. This means that during one six-month period, which included the long school summer holiday, 256 allegations were made against education staff.

If that pattern is repeated, it suggests that more than 500 allegations of physical assault are made against staff each year following use of restraint techniques.

The allegations are arising despite the rights of teachers to use "reasonable force" being strengthened by Parliament in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act.

Staff can legally intervene if pupils are harming themselves or others, committing an offence or failing to follow disciplinary rules.

The same law brought in controversial powers giving teachers the right to search pupils, following recommendations made to the Government by school behaviour tsar Sir Alan Steer.

The right to intervene physically applies not only to teachers, but to anyone the headteacher has authorised to be in charge of pupils, including teaching assistants, learning mentors and lunchtime supervisors. It also applies outside the school gates while pupils are still in their charge - for example, on school trips.

Martin Pilkington, head of legal and member services at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the 2006 act meant that for the first time schools could not impose policies banning physical intervention by teachers.

"That was an important and significant change, but there is still a steady stream of allegations arising from cases of restraint," said Mr Pilkington.

"Many cases never get beyond the interview stage at the police station, but the impact of that should not be underestimated."

Mr Pilkington criticises the level of training in restraint techniques, which the ATL believes should be compulsory for all staff.

"In mainstream schools training is inadequate and insufficient unless it is refreshed on a regular basis," he said.

Suzanne Nantcurvis, a national executive member of the NASUWT teaching union, is also concerned about the level of training, especially in special schools.

"As budgets are cut to the bone, updating training might not be seen as a priority. It is something that could fall by the wayside."

At this year's NASUWT conference, Ms Nantcurvis described some of the physical assaults suffered by staff at special schools. She drew attention to teachers having to buy protective clothing to prevent biting and cited examples of teachers having to pay for their own inoculations following assaults.

Ms Nantcurvis told The TES that violent incidents in special schools were rarely malicious, but that it was crucial for staff to be properly trained in restraint techniques.

She also stressed the importance of schools informing parents of their restraint policies so that incidents do not automatically lead to allegations of force being misused.

Plans to compel schools to record all cases of physical intervention and restraint by staff have been criticised by headteacher unions.

Mick Brookes of the NAHT said it will create an "enormous amount of extra work", particularly for schools with high numbers of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it risked turning what might be a minor incident into a "big issue".

The Commons children, schools and families select committee is set to carry out an investigation into malicious allegations against teachers.

There is a widespread agreement among unions that school staff should be given anonymity unless guilt is proven, but Anita Chopra, an education lawyer with Match Solicitors, believes this will be difficult in practice. In a bid to cut down on the number of malicious allegations, schools could instead consider training only a small number of teachers to use restraint techniques, she said.

"There is an inherent fear by parents that this power can be misused, so it's extremely important for schools to ensure that only one or two members of staff are trained to use reasonable force in certain and limited circumstances," she said.

"If the power is misused by teachers, there is a real risk that litigation on this issue will increase."


Under laws passed in 2006, school staff are allowed to use reasonable force against pupils if they are:

- committing any criminal offence

- causing injury to themselves or others

- damaging property

- prejudicing good order and discipline.


When Brian Fisher broke up a fight between two Year 10 boys last month, he expected that to be the end of it. But after reprimanding one of the boys in his office, the 45-year-old teacher became a victim of a violent outburst.

Having finished talking to the pupil, Mr Fisher told the boy to leave his office and return to class. The pupil refused, becoming increasingly aggressive and uncooperative.

After repeated warnings, Mr Fisher put his hand on the pupil's back to escort him from the room. The student swung his elbow back towards his teacher, leaving Mr Fisher no option but to restrain him.

When he was released, the pupil struck out again, this time directing a punch at Mr Fisher's face. Again he restrained the boy, this time with the help of another teacher, until calm had been restored.

But that was not the end of it. The pupil. made an accusation to the police that he had been assaulted.

Mr Fisher had to attend an interview at the police station. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but has yet to return to work.

According to Martin Pilkington, head of legal services at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, incidents of this type are "deeply traumatic" for staff.

"It is even more traumatic if it goes as far as court," he said. "Getting teachers back into the classroom after that kind of experience is very difficult." Names have been changed.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today