Restraint in school – what the law says

You hope you will never have to use restraint, but if your duty of care leaves you with little choice: know your school procedure and record everything

The latest school shooting in the US and stories of children being locked in classrooms in the UK have once again highlighted the issue of restraint and how far teachers and schools can go according to the law.

To start, you need to balance the need for restraint against both how reasonable it is to use the restraint and the duty of care to protect the pupils from harm.

A member of staff may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to prevent a pupil from committing an offence, causing injury to a person or themselves, causing damage to property or prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline. This force can only be used where the staff member and the pupil are on school premises or somewhere where the member of staff has lawful control or charge of the pupil (for example, a school trip).

Corporal punishment is not allowed.

The word “reasonable” often causes problems as one person’s definition may be completely different to another’s.

READ MORE: What’s the law on confiscating a pupil’s mobile phone?

In the past the law has defined reasonable as “reasonable in regard to those existing circumstances of which the actor, called on to act reasonably, knows or ought to know”, which all sounds very imprecise. In practical terms, factors influencing whether something is reasonable could be the seriousness of the incident, the chances of achieving the desired result by other means and the risks associated with physical intervention compared with other methods.

A useful guideline could be to use the minimum force required, in the circumstances, lasting for the shortest practicable time or, in Department for Education (DfE) terms, using no more force than is needed.

Helpful scenarios set out by the DfE regarding when reasonable force may be used include the removal of disruptive children from the classroom, preventing a pupil from disrupting a school event, preventing a pupil from leaving the classroom if it risks his or her safety, stopping a fight or restraining a pupil at risk of harming him or herself through a physical outbreak.

You may be thinking you would not want to restrain a burly year 10 boy, but do you have to? The law provides a power, not a duty, to use force which gives you some discretion. However, school staff do have a duty of care towards their pupils to protect them from harm and it could be argued that failing to take action may, in some circumstances, breach that duty.

You have discretion whether to use force or not

So what should you do if you have to use reasonable force? Record, record, record.

The school should have a set procedure regarding documenting an event such as this. Hopefully this will not happen, but an allegation in relation to the force applied could be made and investigated.

An extra section in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 concerning recording and reporting the use of force within a school has been suggested but not yet implemented; this does not mean the suggestions within it should not be followed.

It suggests a school should record each significant incident when a member of staff uses force on a pupil and report each incident to parents of the pupil (it is currently up to the individual school to consider if it is appropriate to report the use of force to parents).

The school’s procedure must require a written record as soon as possible after the incident. This may well be standard procedure anyway.

A wider question is how to deal with this issue as a whole.

All staff should be aware of the set procedure for using reasonable force and the events after it has been used, and should have relevant training.

The school should also acknowledge its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils and children with special needs, and detail this within its policy.

It may be useful to consult teachers, parents and pupils (where appropriate) when devising a policy to give it the best opportunity for success.

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  1. Bob Betts

    We have this week held an open workshop to look at the is issue, not with so called experts who are from a police or martial arts background but with teaching staff, SMT and other stakeholders who have worked in schools, whilst the DofE will never endorse a system of management and safety we feel that what is offered should be appropriate. So far we have looked at the trainers requirements and the suitability different physical interventions.

    • Helen

      I would like to get some basic training in restraint and de-escalation but I”m really struggling to find anything for me. Can you suggest anything?

  2. Using force or restraint on pupils is the last thing that teaching staff want to do. They did not become teacher to restrain children but to educate them. However sometime it is necessary to restrain pupils and when this has to happen it must be done with the pupils best interests in mind. A behaviour management policy, risk assessments and a restraint policy must be in place to ensure staff are aware of what their responsibilities are, the risks they may face and the risks to the pupils if restraint is used, and what they must when restraint is used. Head teachers are responsible for the training that their staff recieive not local authorities and they should not be influenced by these local authorities into accepting training that is not fit for purpose for their environment in which they work.This article has picked up on some of the wording in the guidance and mentions that the word reasonable. It sates that the word reasonable causes problem as people’s definition of this word maybe also be different. They suggest the word minimum should be used but then people’s definition of the word minimum. When teaching education staff I find that reasonable is by far easier to define especially when you explain the 2 factors that must be considered for force to be considered reasonable.

    1. Is it necessary to use force? Do you have any alternatives or have you already tried to use other alternatives such as distraction and positive behaviour management and support strategies. In some circumstances after risk assessing the situation rather than removing the pupil causing the disruption you could remove the other pupils for their safety. But if you decide to use force then the force you up use must be 2. proportionate to the harm you are trying to avoid occurring. I have taught positive handling and restraint training in education for sometime and have found that when the definition of reasonable force is explained staff are more confident in their powers under the legislation. This article also points out to record everything which is not only important but a legal requirement.
    But this recording system needs to then be used for a positive purpose after the incident and should be used at a de briefing meeting to allow staff to look at 1. What happened, 2. Why did it happen, 3. Was there anything that could have been done to prevent it, 4. What can we learn to help prevent it happening again. This will help teachers and support staff develop other strategies to deal with disruptive behaviour in their place of work.

  3. Jade is absolutely right – record everything. In addition, have a clear intervention policy agreed by the Board of Governors, teaching staff, safeguarding representatives and co-operative external agencies (such as the police or safeguarding teams)and parents.

    Then communicate the policy to all staff and provide suitable and sufficient training.

    In addition and where necessary, have specific behavioural management plans in place for specific children who may present behaviour that challenges that are agreed by a ‘multi-disciplinary’ team so that any required foreseeable restraint of a child can be appropriately death with.

    Single person restraint is a lone working activity that carried additional risk. Therefore, if workable staff should not be expected to restrain on their own due to the increased margin for error and the difficulty in reducing or dealing with any allegations made.

    In response to jade’s comment about the “how to deal with this issue as a whole” there is some good practice being implemented in care settings now that are designed to reduce the need for physical restraint, and it would be worth schools looking at adopting a restraint reduction strategy; similar to what is happening in care settings under new DoH guidance issued in 2014, as a model of best practice to save schools having to ‘re-invent the wheel’.

    Mark Dawes
    Director, NFPS Ltd.

  4. Well said, a cracking article and well worth reading.
    I agree with Mark, there is a need for schools and local authorities to catch up with the rest of the world.
    Some areas still have a ” No Touch” policy in place which, as outlined in the article, could leave staff open to prosecution under their duty of care.
    Employers need to give staff the suitable information, supervision and training to allow them to do their jobs. This is a legal requirement under UK health and safety law. I would argue that, at present, we are letting our teachers down.

  5. This is an excellent article which summarises the essential points head-teachers, school governors and other school staff should consider when framing and implementing behaviour and use of force policies for use in educational establishments.

    One other point that I think is worth mentioning is that highlighted by the key principles of the DfE’s Use of Force Guidance, in that staff should be supported by senior management when this power is used and that suspension should not be an automatic response when allegations of excessive force are made.

    It is very much a cause of hesitation for many staff in using their power of reasonable force that they may possibly be putting their careers on the line should any such allegations be made. I believe it is therefore crucial to get this point over to staff delegates during their training that, in fact, they must absolutely be supported by their managers if they have acted lawfully. By doing so, this will empower them not just to implement their powers when needed – and so fulfil their duty of care – but also to educate their senior management teams in turn. Indeed, it is essential that head-teachers, and possibly maybe the governors, attend any relevant training themselves so they can gain a thorough grasp of this concept.

    As a bare minimum, all staff and interested parties should read the DfE guidance as it provides an excellent basis upon which to base a school policy.

    Nicholas Davies – Trainer, N Davies Training

  6. Excellent article and pertinent comments. There are also complex questions here about who should be trained and how much training they should receive. There are established ‘off the shelf’ training courses which a school can buy into and in much the same way as “no IT manager was ever fired for buying IBM” then there is a pervasive attitude that “no headteacher can be fired for buying the standard Positive Handling course”. With the levels of liability and risk involved, it is imperative that careful and reasoned decisions about training provision are made…what training provider to commission, how much time to allocate, who to involve in the training, what level of training is needed and critically – how to evidence these decisions? With so much else on their plates, it is no wonder that SLT look for quick wins in this area, but if there is a child in the school who is being restrained or who may need to be, then these issues deserve focussed attention for all the right reasons.

  7. Rhys Penlan

    People do not go into teaching as an alternative to all in wrestling or life in the marines. Generally teachers want to be seen as helping facilitators not enforcers of law. This in turn affects their attitude to those who teach personal safety, viewing us as knuckle dragging neaderthals.

    The key skill in reality is strategic communication, as Simon says if it’s all going off try not to be there. Remove yourself and the other young people – in reality a big part of challenging behaviour is your reaction to it.

    That is another dificult thing for teachers, recognising their part in things. Nearly every occasion it will come down to not treating people with dignity and respect. It’s the rules, so there -and downhill it goes….

    There is a very good book on managing opositional behaviour from pupils Bill O’Hanlan Try and make me.

    His premise is there are no badly behaved pupils but there are ones who have yet to learn to behave.