What do we mean by the word ‘force’? In a school context, it typically refers to occasions when a teacher has had made assertive physical contact with another child. In 2013 the government published guidance on the use of reasonable force (see tinyurl.com/dfe-rforce)), which observed that “Force is usually used either to control or restrain.” The key word cited within the document, however, is ‘reasonable’, as it goes on to describe how “‘Reasonable in the circumstances’ means using no more force than is needed.”
It’s entirely reasonable for staff to use passive force – such as standing between two pupils who are fighting – or active force, such as leading a pupil by the arm out of a classroom, if doing so will reduce the overall risk of greater harm. The main message to stress here is that such uses of force should be rare events, and that if they do arise, they shouldn’t lead to further injury.
So when can force be used? Bearing in mind that any use of force should be a rare occurrence, the frequency with which reasonable force is applied in schools appears to be far greater than outward impressions suggest. Children ultimately shouldn’t require regular restraint in class – in cases where it happens, investigations should be carried out and strategies implemented to manage such behaviour and monitor the response from staff.
That said, examples that might warrant the use of reasonable force include removing a child from a classroom, or possibly preventing them from leaving, where failing to do so would risk harm to other pupils. Similarly, preventing a pupil from attacking a member of staff or fellow pupil, or from harming themselves, may justify the use of force.
Staff may also have cause to use force outside of school during a local or residential visit. Situations arising there arguably fall more into the realm of ‘common sense’, but regardless, the staff in question will be required to use their professional judgement, ideally having previously received training that supports good practice.
After force has been used, it’s good practice to inform the pupil’s parents/ carers. In my own experience, situations requiring the use of force will often result in further sanctions, possibly up to an exclusion, depending on the child’s age. Your discussion with parents about the incident will naturally be informed by a report outlining the nature of the force used by the relevant member of staff, and for what reason.
When reporting to parents, remember to include the following:
- The pupil’s behaviour and the level of risk presented at the time of the incident
- The degree of force used
- The subsequent effect on the pupil or member of staff concerned
The latter point is especially important, since this is the first step in establishing empathy and ultimately respect between both parties.
Schools are also able to use force in order to search for prohibited items, including knives, illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, pornography, stolen goods, fireworks or any other item that could potentially be used to cause harm or offence. These are all items that are prohibited as standard in accordance with the 1996 Education Act, but this list of prohibited items can’t be extended to other specific items the school might wish to prohibit as a matter of course, such as smartphones.
It has to be recognised that poor practice can and does happen. Indeed, it’s been known for some some schools to adopt habits they consider ‘reasonable’, but which actually go far beyond the type of practices outlined in government guidance. In the heat of the moment, what starts as ‘reasonable force’ can quickly escalate – and it’s because of situations such as these that one-time whistleblowing policies have since become statutory documents. If you witness or learn of a colleague using force that you consider to be beyond ‘reasonable’, what should you do?
There should always be a culture of mutual respect in your school. If a member of staff is uncomfortable with the actions of a colleague, they speak to their line manager. If the actions in questions having in fact come from their line manager, another senior member or even the headteacher, that member of staff ought to speak to the LA or the school’s chair of governors. Allowing unreasonable force to become standard practice will jeopardise a school’s reputation and the very integrity of the education profession itself.
A final point to note on where things can go wrong is regarding the use of isolation rooms. Schools that operate an isolation room policy can only do so if appropriate training has been provided, and even then, only in secondary schools – primary schools cannot operate isolation rooms.
Children should never be forced into an isolation room, and certainly shouldn’t be confined in one against their own will (which could include a member of staff holding the door shut). Actions of this kind are classed as false imprisonment and are illegal. If your school operates any type of ‘control’ room, it’s strongly advised that there be regular training for attending staff, including appropriate risk assessments.
It’s this uncertainty within schools of not knowing what they can and can’t do that’s fuelled a rise in restraint training companies in recent years. Ironically, good restraint training shouldn’t be about restraint techniques, but rather how to avoid the need for any type of restraint in the first instance. Private training companies certainly shouldn’t be advertising the teaching of such techniques over de-escalation strategies.
During any training of this type, the core messages you should receive are:
- Restraint should be rare
- Restraint should be reasonable
Equally, you should be looking for a clear articulation of existing government guidance, which hasn’t changed in principal since the Education and Inspections Act of 2006 (the aforementioned 2013 guidance sought to explain the measures of said Act more clearly). It’s unlikely that official government guidance in this area will change in any substantial way. It’s certainly good practice to provide regular training in the area of restraint, but schools aren’t required to do so.
A final point. Schools are socially dynamic environments, and it’s been well publicised how regularly teachers are assaulted or hurt in their place of work. This, though, is no excuse to use excessive force. We are professionals, and even in the heat of the moment must continue to act professionally. We need to understand that aggressive behaviour isn’t typical, and that it often reflects a child in distress.
Our professional duty is to uphold that child’s dignity – even if they’re spitting in your face.
Anthony David is an executive headteacher