March 16, 2021

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.”