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When Britain turned its back on child abuse Disabled children are being scarred for life by disturbing practices in schools

Are zero-tolerance behaviour policies to blame? (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Are zero-tolerance behaviour policies to blame? (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)


March 16, 2021   5 mins

When the actor Sally Phillips arrived to pick up her teenage son Olly from school, she was confronted with a scene so shocking it would make any mother question whether her child could be safe in the classroom.

“He was pinned to the grass face down, with his arms behind his back, by a young male teacher wearing blue latex gloves while a small group of other staff looked on,” she tells me. “Olly later said that he’d been carried through the school by four staff, one to each limb and thrown.”

Olly, who has Down’s syndrome, was fortunate enough to be able to move to a school more sensitive to his needs. But his disturbing treatment remains a frequent occurrence in educational institutions across the United Kingdom — and it is overwhelmingly disabled children who are being left both mentally and physically scarred by it.

Previously, the abuse of children in schools was thought to be a disturbing product of a bygone era; something that took place in Victorian Britain rather than the 21st century. That is, of course, partly due to the shameful lack of media interest in this area. Indeed, it’s rather telling that in the past year, the only time it has been significantly covered in the national press was last month, when Paris Hilton spoke out about her own experience of restraint and seclusion in a Utah boarding school for so-called “troubled teens”. She tells me: “That small room, covered in scratch marks and smeared blood, with no bathroom, is one of the most vivid and traumatising memories I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

It was a grim, honest account of abuse in school — and one shared by countless children here in Britain. Restraint forms part of a sanctioned group of so-called “restrictive practices” used in education, health and social care settings, as well as, unsurprisingly, in prisons. In the UK, these practices are regulated with a duty “to record and report” in all settings except education. Methods include physical restraint (with a number of different holds taught), mechanical restraint (such as being tied to a chair), chemical restraint (using drugs) and the use of seclusion, with children being sent to rooms or even tents and confined within them.

Add to this the emerging practice of imposing “blanket restrictions”, whereby children are not allowed to walk, run or play with their peers, or must visit the toilet at a set time (which is often not appropriate for some disabled children), and it’s no wonder that so many parents of disabled children are terrified for their well-being.

For most parents, the zero-tolerance behaviour policies enforced in so many schools are to blame for this hidden crisis. As one campaigner, Beth Morrison, tells me: “We banned the belt in the eighties; now we are bringing physical punishment back for disabled kids by the back door.”

Beth’s son, Calum, who has epilepsy and support needs, was restrained on a number of occasions at a school in Dundee between 2010 and 2013. On one occasion, after he failed to follow a prescribed route when riding a bike designed for children with disabilities, he was restrained by four people and left with sixty bruises on his body. Dundee City Council say that they have fully engaged with police and prosecutors, and have taken on recommendations from the subsequent report. But Calum’s experience inspired Beth to set up the charity Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS) in 2017, and has since collected more than 1,200 testimonies from families whose children — the youngest of whom was just aged two — have been restrained or secluded. In one recent case, a child who was held face down in the playground now needs a skin graft.

Yet when Morrison attends school meetings at the request of anxious parents, she says it’s a common refrain for senior teachers to dismiss their concerns by saying: “We have no records, so you have no evidence.” Indeed, a recent survey by the Children’s and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland revealed that one third of Scotland’s local authorities did not expect schools to keep a record. (The shocking findings have since forced the Scottish government to agree to produce guidance on the use and monitoring of restraint and seclusion.)

The Northern Ireland assembly is also starting to wake up to the trauma and injuries endured by disabled children every day. Last month, Deirdre Shakespeare gave harrowing testimony about the experience of her son, Harry, now nine, to the assembly’s education committee. She tells me that Harry, then aged five, had been happy and placid. But after attending a “special school”, he started to have panic attacks and night terrors, and cowered in fear whenever his parents approached him.

The family later discovered that he had been strapped to a chair for different activities, including learning, feeding and playing, even though he has no mobility issues. Colin McMenamin, from KRW, a leading Irish human rights law practice, said: “We have issued proceedings on this important matter and are seeking judicial oversight on what remains a very sensitive issue.”

When I approached Education Authority Northern Ireland for comment, a spokesperson said that the authority does not comment on “matters relating to individual children”. It is worth noting, though, that Morrison and Shakespeare told the Assembly that 22 Northern Irish families with disabled children aged between four and eleven had reported similar cases to PABSS, including physical injuries such as scratches, bruising and abrasions from being dragged. Moreover, the Northern Irish children’s commissioner, in a submission to the UN Committee Against Torture, has called for tougher laws, saying that schools should be required to report and record cases and that the law around when restraint can be used needs to be clarified.

The Welsh government is also currently consulting on guidance to better monitor restraint and seclusion across all age groups. In England, however, the Department for Education (DfE) is lagging behind, despite overwhelming evidence of harm in English schools.

In February last year, campaigners and advocates gathered at the House of Lords for the launch of the Reducing Restrictive Interventions and Safeguarding Children report. It included the testimony of one family whose child, referred to as Annie, was restrained 158 times in the space of eighteen months. “Many of these restraints spanned considerable time periods and involved multiple staff members,” it said. Annie “started self-harming and making suicidal threats” and “is now having trauma therapy”.

On the same day, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that it would hold an inquiry into the practices in English and Welsh schools, and should report within the next few weeks. Yet campaigners and experts fear that nothing will change in England.

And if history provides a guide, they may well be correct. Even back in 2011, a review of restraint and seclusion in English and Welsh schools by Charlie Taylor, then the government’s behaviour advisor, looked at the recording and reporting of use of force. His conclusion? That schools should not be forced to record such incidents because it would add to “their bureaucratic burden”. Eight years later, the DfE eventually produced non-statutory guidance on the use of the practices for disabled young people — but only in specialist settings. It did not cover mainstream schools and did not require schools to inform parents, many of whom want their disabled child educated alongside their non-disabled peers.

So many are left looking, albeit with a hint of cynicism, to the DfE’s current behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, who is set to launch a Behaviour Hubs programme, which he says will encourage schools to be “low tolerance” regarding behaviour, rather than zero tolerance. The DfE were approached for comment about parental concerns but did not respond. Bennett, however, has said that restraint is “incredibly rare in mainstream schools” and that the rules about restraint are adequate because it is rare and defends the use of “removal rooms and parking students separately from their classes
a common and useful part of many mainstream schools”.

James Betts, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, who acts for families representing a group of children who were restrained across the UK, disagrees. “Our most vulnerable children are being failed on account of the lack of adequate legal safeguards, and the families I act for believe that current restraint practices in the UK leave children with learning disabilities or autism at a very real risk of serious injury or even death,” he says. “Until robust action is taken, the children and families I act for will not rest. They deserve answers, accountability and real change to protect others in the future.”


Katharine Quarmby is a journalist and author.

KatharineQ

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Jamie Farrell
Jamie Farrell
3 years ago

There is one point that is inconvenient but true on the other side of the argument that suggests it’s obvious that any violence against children should be banned.
And that is that children also have the capacity for violence.
Any parent knows just how impossible it can be for a grown adult to contain a 2 yr old who doesn’t want to get into their push chair, let alone say a 16yr old pubescent boy approaching manhood who doesn’t want to play ball.
So, teachers should be given some consideration and empathy I think; they should not have to work in an environment where they are completely defenceless against potential violence against themselves, even if the threat comes from minors.
That said, any form of law is not there (because it practically cannot be) to anticipate every potential scenario. It’s there in a “lesser of 2 evils” capacity to, on balance, try protect the majority who are likely to be most at risk and to discourage the potentially excessive behaviour of the few. I would say therefore that it’s pretty obvious that we should have laws that prioritise the protection of kids vs adults.
But, I do think the law should also allow for the adult teacher to act as is required to either safeguard themselves or others (including violent restraint) if they can demonstrate that this was necessary and appropriate.
Practically, I can’t see how this could be policed in practice without video cameras around the schools….the pros and cons of which is another debate altogether!

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Jamie Farrell

So true, especially a child who finds it harder to regulate emotion. I belong to a ukulele group and the teacher turned up slightly late once and looked terrible. We asked him what was wrong and he said he’d had a terrible day and told us how he teaches uke to small groups at a special needs school but that it is not really teaching it is more like crowd control. Anyway this one particular kid, a new kid apparently, who was obviously very disturbed, had spent the day trying to climb up the bookcases, started throwing books at the kids and him, then proceeded to soil himself, smear it all over the walls and tried to smash a kid’s head in while screaming and wailing. I don’t know how you even begin to deal with something like that. At what point do you stop allowing this kid to hurt other people and himself and take firm and physical control of the situation, which might look draconian out of context??

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
3 years ago

I feel very much sympathy for the individual teachers who are being asked to teach children with real difficulties alongside the rest of the class who are mostly learning at the same pace. Except for the concept of ‘special schools’- no longer acceptable I’m told- then how is the problem to be managed?

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago
Reply to  jules Ritchie

Schools employ teaching assistants to help in classrooms, special training should be provided and violence outlawed.

frances heywood
frances heywood
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

of course violence should be outlawed.
OTOH – it could be argued that teaching assistants, teachers, and even school secretaries, should not be called upon to regularly undertake what in effect are nursing procedures. I have seen this happen: it takes time away from their normal job and adds extra, onerous, responsibilities.
To add a further complication, the days of the school nurse are long gone.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

So, it becomes a question of resources and ensuring that properly trained staff are on hand to support students and teachers.

frances heywood
frances heywood
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

thanks but I’m not sure it’s ‘just’ a question of resources and training. If I worked in a mainstream school, primary or secondary, I would be very nervous about dispensing medication, tending to wounds, or attempting a nursing procedure for, say, a child who is peg-fed.
There are a number of conflicting interests here, as well as ethical issues. There is no doubt that the demands, and sometimes the behaviour, of a minority of children in school can be extremely challenging and sometimes destructive, to themselves, to other children and adults, and to the environment.
I defend the existence of special schools and would be concerned if articles like this one hasten their demise, or turn away aspiring teachers who are well disposed to working with vulnerable children.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Violence outlawed. But let other kids get away with violence ( because they have ( fill in the blank) ……. syndrome, so they can do what they like with no consequences.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

I’ve seen that both as a school governor and a Scout leader, middle class parents actively seeking a label to excuse their child’s poor behaviour, often as a result of poor parenting.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Bring back the birch, it never failed!

William Jackson
William Jackson
3 years ago

I assume, that you never had the birch (cain), as someone who did, and on many occasions, from the age of seven receive a caning. I can assure you, or another likeminded commentator, that your comment is pure BS.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
3 years ago

In my experience, the vast majority of teachers, educators, aren’t sadists, sorry, that sounds wrong, I mean, out and out sadists, masochists possibly, but not sadists. I’m sure, if one really looked, cases of abuse, or questionable practice can be found, some that might be truly.shocking, but l do worry that, what, to my eyes, appears to be a somewhat overly dramatic article, is just life (my son regularly comes home, from school, covered in bruises, scrapes and scratches).
It does concern me that, the better “educated”, informed and controlled society becomes, the less, it seems, we are allowed to use common sense to guide our actions, and the more we are expected to follow an “experts” theory about how we should behave, or respond, in any number or variety of situations (was it Churchill who coined the phrase “ If you try to idiot proof society, you end up with a society of idiots” ?) I still, vaguely, remember, several years ago, the fire brigade, here in Scotland, being censured, because they put procedure and health and safety ahead of the fact that they were supposed to be rescuing an injured man (who subsequently died) who’d fallen down a “short” mineshaft. They were paralysed into inaction by procedures and rules, rather than use their common sense to evaluate the situation and way up the risks. We really need to rely on and “trust” the common decency and sense of those people that we put into difficult, or challenging situations. Certainly we need to be ever watchful for misdeeds, or outright criminality, but also we can’t expect to be judge and jury over every situation where in hindsight we would have done it differently.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher
3 years ago

I spent about 15 years in total teaching in special schools in and around London and Essex. About 4 years of that was doing daily supply, so I visited a lot of schools. I never once saw what is being described above.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Fisher

I am sure there are isolated incidents, but that doesn’t mean ‘Britain’ has turned its back on child abuse. Ridiculous headline.

Kristof K
Kristof K
3 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Wait! This article does paint a shocking picture, but it’s really lazy to dismiss the incidents related in it as “isolated”.

It seems to me you can’t judge for yourself how bad things really are (or how “good” even if not particularly satisfactory) untill you have the answers to at least the following questions

1. Is it a big number?  In today’s UnHerd edition there’s an <a href=”https://unherd.com/2021/03/how-dangerous-is-the-astrazeneca-jab/”>article</a> about the safety of the AstraZeneca jab which urges us to do this every time we see reported numbers. In the context of this article: is 1,200 families a big number (in Scotland), 22 a big one in Northern Ireland? The article reports government agencies as aserting that incidents are “incredibly rare in mainstream schools” which really tells us absolutely nothing!

2. What is the impact of each incident? The impact, I would suggest, is rarely confined to the individual child. Each incident impinges on all involved: The child, the staff concerned, the family … But it can also be long-lasting; the article gives one example of a child requiring “trauma therapy” after being “restrained 158 times in eighteen months.” Who knows how long that therapy might be needed for?

So I find this article somewhat frustrating as it doesn’t do much for me in answering these, even though I find the examples given very compelling on a personal level. All in all, though, I am glad that this issue is being drawn to hour attention as, in the end, the obvious might occur to us which is that mainstream schools (many, possibly most) are not sufficiently well resourced to adequately address the needs of some of their particularly vulnerable charges. That is certainly what the phrase “turned its back on ..” very vividly portrays and almost certainly accurately so.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Fisher

That’s because it very rarely happens. When it does, it’s overwhelmingly because a child is violently out of control and needs to be restrained, for his or her own safety and that of others. And if restraining a tantruming child alone is physical violence, probably every parent would be guilty of such “violence” at some point. It’s unpleasant and scary though, because such restraining can physically hurt. When I was a preschool teacher years ago, I refused to work with a certain toddler who threw violent tantrums every time his mom left the classroom, precisely because I was afraid of hurting him if I had to physically restrain him. He was big for his age and very strong, and holding him back from running at and slamming himself against the door was like trying to restrain an eel. He would not sit on my lap or let me hug or comfort him. His mother (who had spoiled him rotten and was at her wits’ end) begged us to keep trying to let him adapt to the classroom without her, but I basically said I would quit my job if they forced me to deal with him again. The director and the mom eventually compromised and she stayed in the classroom with him. It’s a horrible Catch-22 for a teacher, parent, or caregiver, knowing that restraining am enraged child is likely to hurt him to the point of even leaving bruises, when you’re trying to prevent him from causing himself worse injury. Violent children – especially ones who are seriously disturbed and do thing like banging their heads – can cause themselves terrible injuries.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
3 years ago

Euthanasia for the old and brutality for the disabled. A totalitarian state has to start somewhere. Add this to the near total indifference regarding the Rotherham sex abuses and you fear for the things to come.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Spot on, and note how sainted Oxford had its Rotherham moments, but hardly a whisper was heard.

Why? Because its cultural, and in that cesspit otherwise known as multi cultural Britain, if Pakistani men wish to sodomise white schoolgirls that’s OK.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago

Sorry but the headline is ridiculous. The odd rogue incident does not make ‘Britain is turning its back on child abuse’ true. I would point out the hypocrisy of many commentators seeking to downplay religion or culture in the overwhelmingly homogenous phenomenon of grooming gangs but quick to see connections to our whole country.

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
3 years ago

… and, in the broad context here, let’s not forget the ongoing, decades long abuse & rape atrocities suffered by poor, local girls in Telford, Leeds, Rochdale, Oxford, Canterbury and 20+ other locales … the common factor being: “wrong sort of victim” ( largely Anglo, poor, though female, though vulnerably young) and the perps ? apparently protected clan based rape-gangs . No mass protests. WrongSpeak not permitted, especially in leftist circles. Convictions low in proportion to the crime involvement of
deviant groups. *Racialism writ large.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter de Barra
Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago

Quite frankly I’m shocked that schools are allowed to use physical restraint without the legal requirement to document it.
It would seem to me that the “beauracratic burden” of documenting this would be very light on mainstream schools as it would very rarely be required. Schools where it was required more frequently due to having larger number of children with disabilities and difficulties would surely be able to streamline the process with specilist staff.
While I have no experience of teaching, and was last in a compulsary education setting a long time ago, I’m pretty sure that during the 14 years of schooling this never happened once!

Ray Hall
Ray Hall
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Bureaucracy expands. The bureaucrats argument will be that it is best practice to record all restraints once someone is recording some restraints. Some parent will complain that “They record what they do when they restrain her Timmy but not when they restrain my Danny “……..

Peter LR
Peter LR
3 years ago

When I was teaching we had a course on the official restraining methods. Fortunately, I never had to use them as it was a mainstream school. However, I did have to get in between fighting boys each of whom was bigger than their female teacher.
I would be concerned about teachers migrating away from schools if there was a concerted effort to prosecute over demanding and sudden explosive situations. This has happened in primary education where only 1 in 25 teachers are now male due to concerns over the ease of allegations of abuse being made against men.
I would also like to know that the solicitor mentioned has no avaricious conflicts of interest in the problems which staffing these schools presents.

mick
mick
3 years ago

Yes lets not restrain pupils who are attacking other pupils, Let them get on with it that should avoid trauma to the pupils. Before anybody starts lecturing me that that the kids with autism and other disabilities are all lovable peaceable children that cause no harm to others. I’ll save you the trouble I have aspergers and have children who have aspergers. Most of the time restraint isn’t needed and probably better training for teachers would help, but there are times when restraint is the lesser evil. The fact that holding someone down firmly enough to stop them hurting others or even themselves causes bruises isn’t suprising it doesn’t though mean the force was excessive. Being headbutted kicked or punched can cause a fair bit of damage.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

Some of these practices sound like the kind of dog-training techniques that would now land you in the middle of an RSPCA case. It seems incredible that they are being applied to vulnerable youngsters.

Keith Payne
Keith Payne
3 years ago

Sure, children with difficulties can become violent and unmanageable at times, but what I pick up from the article is how little the parents seem to be engaged through the school with the problems that the teachers may be facing. What is the communication issue here?

Susie E
Susie E
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Payne

This is an excellent point. Surely children with difficulties need all of their caregivers to be sharing information and knowledge constantly. My (mostly) ‘normal’ children’s needs change weekly as they grow and develop.

Mark Kerridge
Mark Kerridge
3 years ago

There comes a point where a child with special needs needs a special and separate institution for their education.. The article doesn’t say why teachers would have to restrain the children mentioned so it’s difficult to judge whether such action was appropriate or not.. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion about how many children’s education and development in schools could / are being adversely affected by having to share their learning environment with children with severe behavioral problems. i think situations like these have at times been called the tyranny of the minority.. And the minority, in this case, doesn’t seem to be well served by the current fad for inclusion.

Last edited 3 years ago by Mark Kerridge
alanna.taylor62
alanna.taylor62
3 years ago

This isn’t only recent practice. My daughter, who has complex needs was assaulted by her teacher in 1999 at her special needs school, completely unprovoked. The police wanted a conviction but the cps wouldn’t prosecute, it was brushed under the carpet. She changed overnight has never been the same. It’s a tragedy and the teacher was retired early with full pension.

Last edited 3 years ago by alanna.taylor62
Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

How about the abuse whereby divorced women prevent the children from seeing their father? That seems pretty widespread these days but of course we mustn’t upset the womenz.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

This is a low-quality, hysterical article, atypical for UnHerd. I have many friends who teach special-needs children. I work in healthcare and deal with handicapped people frequently. Never in all my years have I ever seen someone abused. I know it happens, just like I’m sure racism happens. It’s just not really “a thing”. The reality of dealing with potentially violent handicapped people is that physical restraint is sometimes unavoidable, either to keep them from hurting themselves, or someone else trying to care for them. Anyone who has ever worked for any length of time with the handicapped understands this.
Here in Canada, the issue isn’t that handicapped clients are being abused or hurt in care homes or schools. The issue is that nurses, care workers, TA’s and teachers are.

George McLellan
George McLellan
3 years ago

This provides rather harrowing reading.

Last edited 3 years ago by George McLellan