More than 700 children reported injured after being 'restrained' at special schools

The majority of local authorities were not able to provide data, leading investigators to suggest the true number of injuries could be much higher

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of children have been injured while having to be physically restrained in special schools, new figures reveal.

An investigation led by BBC Radio 5 live found some pupils were pinned face down on the floor and others were strapped into chairs.

Others suffered broken bones while one pupil was reported to have had their head covered with a “spit hood”.

There were around 13,000 restraints reported, resulting in at least 731 injuries over the past three years in schools designed for children who are disabled or have special learning needs.

Those involved in the investigation said less than a fifth of local authorities were able to provide the data, however, with most responding that they didn’t keep the information.

The true number of injuries caused by restraint in special schools is likely to be far higher, they said.

According to the BBC, only nine out of 153 local authorities in England provided figures to respond to a Freedom of Information request. 

Of those that did, there were 6,262 reports of restraints, resulting in 360 injuries in the past three years.

In Scotland, 17 out of 32 local authorities provided data, reporting 4,383 restraints and 157 injuries, and in Wales, 11 out of 22 local authorities provided data, reporting 2,182 restraints and 214 injuries.

No information was held by the Education Authority of Northern Ireland.

Department for Education guidelines state “reasonable force” can be used to keep pupils and staff safe in school, as well as prevent damage to property or prevent “disorder”.

What is “reasonable” is down to the judgement of the teacher, depending on individual circumstances

Using physical force as a punishment is illegal.

Speaking to the BBC, Jacqui Sherlock from the Challenging Behaviour Foundation said it was “particularly shocking” that violent restraint was being used in special schools in an age when “so much” was known about how to resolve poor behaviour without the need for physical intervention.

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“The first thing that’s important to understand is that all challenging behaviour happens for a reason,” she said, “but for young people with learning disabilities and autism, many don’t develop the kind of behaviour skills that other children do.

“So if a child is lashing out at another child in the classroom, it may seem that it has come from nowhere, when actually it’s because that child is distressed and they know if they act out they can be removed from the situation.

“If the reason for their behaviour is better understood, then there will be no need for intervention.”

“We have even been made aware of one case of a spit hood being used,” she added, “which is controversial enough when used with the police or in Guantanamo Bay, let alone with a particularly vulnerable child.”

Mark Oldman, head of Millgate School, a special school in Leicester, said restraint was sometimes necessary in a tough working environment.

“I’ve been physically attacked; pupils have attempted to hurt me or members of staff,” he said.

“I’ve been bitten, spat at; I’ve been run at with an axe. But as their teacher, I have a responsibility to keep them safe, and sometimes that means using restraint.

“You have to be able to trust [school staff] to make snap decisions in some very difficult circumstances.

“I would say that 99.9 per cent of the time, we get it right.”

Sir Stephen Bubb – who led a previous investigation into the abuse of patients with learning disabilities and autism at Winterbourne View near Bristol – said the findings were “scandalous and very dangerous”.

“What is happening in local authorities is extraordinary,” he said.

“Restraint appears to be widespread, but how do we know whether physical restraint is being used as a punishment, which is actually unlawful?”

A Government spokesperson said: “The protection of children is of the utmost importance and any instances of restraint being used inappropriately must be reported. Reasonable force should only ever be used under strict circumstances and to prevent pupils from hurting themselves or others.

“We are updating guidance on reducing the need for restraint for children and young people with learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders and mental health difficulties. This will help special education providers, including special schools, support children and young people with challenging behaviour, to prevent risks and ensure they are protected.  

“We expect to consult professionals, parents and carers on the new draft guidance shortly.” 

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