Growing concern about the use of restraint in schools has led the Equality and Human Rights Commission to launch a formal inquiry. Laura Lucking explains why

Despite being encouraged to do so, there is no legal duty on schools to record incidents of the use of restraint. As a result, there is a lack of transparency and almost no official data about how and when it is being used. This has led us at the Equality and Human Rights Commission this week to launch a formal inquiry into how primary, secondary and special schools in England and Wales are monitoring and recording their use of any type of restraint.

Though some in the sector may respond defensively to this announcement, this inquiry isn’t about accusing the education system of inappropriate conduct. In fact, quite the opposite. The simple truth is that we do not know what is happening on the ground, and an information vacuum like that is dangerous in itself.

In the absence of robust accountability, parents, carers and teachers may be struggling to understand the extent to which schools use restraint and in what circumstances. Worryingly, school and system leaders may not be able to gather a full picture of the use of these types of interventions, in turn limiting their ability to improve their practices and minimise its use.

But most importantly, schools should be a safe haven in which children can learn and flourish under motivating role models who educate and inspire them. The current situation, in which parents and carers of children with disabilities and/or additional support needs especially – backed by a United Nations report – are regularly and publicly calling into question the sector’s use of restraint is simply inadequate. It is also unfair to the schools doing excellent work in this area.

Restraint is traumatic for anyone, and particularly so for children

Restraint is an act carried out with the purpose of restricting an individual’s movement, liberty or freedom to act independently, especially with a view to preventing or ending a dangerous situation. So-called “restrictive interventions” include physical and mechanical restraint and enforced seclusion. They are traumatic for anyone, and particularly so for children.

Of course, there may be circumstances in which such interventions are justified, but they must be a last resort for the safety of the child and those around them. But it is complex, and that’s why we published a framework for restraint, setting out principles for how and when it can be used lawfully.

Nonetheless, there is far too little information being shared. So in the course of our inquiry, we will also look at those institutions that are required by law to collect data (such as child and adolescent mental health units and young offender institutions) to explore if there is any learning from their approaches that can be applied to the education system.

By doing so, we expect to provide schools with approaches showing why recording and monitoring restraint is important, how it can help them to understand how restraint is being used and the pupils who are affected, and how they can improve their practices in future to protect the rights of the children and young people in their care.

Our goal for this inquiry is to understand how big the evidence gap on this issue is within six months, and to deliver a series of recommendations for schools, the Department for Education and the Welsh government to fill that gap. Ultimately, we hope it leads to all children being protected, treated with dignity and able to reach their full potential.

Children have the same rights as anyone else under the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. This includes the right to live free from inhumane and degrading treatment and the right to physical and mental integrity. No good educator believes otherwise, so it’s time to ensure all have access to the knowledge they need to make that belief a reality for every child in our schools.