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Campaigners in Scotland are fighting to change the law on physical restraint to make it harder to restrain and seclude pupils in school.
Daniel Johnson, the Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern, hopes to bring the private member’s bill, Calum’s Law, to ensure pupils are restrained or secluded only as a last resort.
It follows a long-running campaign by Beth Morrison, who leads charity Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS), to better protect children with special educational needs (SEN) in schools.
Morrison’s son Calum, 24, who has epilepsy, cerebral palsy, a learning disability and is autistic, returned home from school with unexplained bruising in 2010, and she has fought ever since to reduce restraint and seclusion.
A report on school exclusions by the charities Children in Scotland, Scottish Autism and National Autistic Society Scotland, convinced Johnson to bring the private member’s bill forward.
The report Not included, not engaged, not involved, highlighted how autistic children and children with other neurodevelopmental conditions are especially vulnerable to being excluded from school.
Johnson, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) himself, says he found the findings “quite harrowing”.
He added: “We have a really good body of evidence that is pretty clear and unequivocal, regarding both the extent of this [seclusion and restraint], and we are talking about hundreds of children at the very least, and, critically, just the lack of consistency of approach.”
In an investigation in 2018, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland found the use of restraint and seclusion is “largely unmonitored, with glaring inconsistencies across local authorities”.
Then, in June of this year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child directed the UK to protect children from restrictive practices like restraint and seclusion in schools.
The Committee said the use of restraint and seclusion in UK schools as a disciplinary practice should be prohibited, and only used as a “true last resort”.
Johnson says Calum’s Law would ensure restraint would only be used when there was a risk of “immediate physical harm or injury to the pupil or other pupils or staff”.
He believes restraint and seclusion are currently used “far more than necessary, including using inappropriate methods”.
Under Calum’s Law, all incidents would be recorded, parents kept informed, a consistent complaints process established, teachers and their assistants given statutory training and national data kept on seclusion and restraint.
The Scottish Government published draft guidance in June last year that stated restraint should be “a last resort, to prevent harm, with the minimum necessary force, and for the minimum necessary time”. However, this is non-statutory guidance, meaning it does not have the force of law.
Johnson says it is crucial that his private member’s bill succeeds because, unlike the current arrangements, it will have a clear legal basis that is more likely to command respect from those in education.
“We need to have this guidance on a statutory footing,” he said.
Morrison, from Angus, said she is “reasonably confident” that putting the guidance on a legal footing would “make a difference”.
She said she and fellow campaigners around the UK have already had some success in England and Wales. For example, Westminster and the Welsh governments are already considering statutory guidance on restraint and seclusion.
However, restraint is still common in schools, and poll by PABSS in March 2023 of 403 families of SEN children found that 62% of children had been restrained or secluded at school.
The charity says 93% of the children included in the data are aged 11 and under, and one in five (20%) are six years old.
Morrison believes primary schools are the problem as the statistics rise from age four to eight, before decreasing.
She has long maintained that restraint is underpinned by an element of cowardice because small children are often the ones who are targeted. When children become bigger in adolescence, staff seem to find other ways to manage them.
A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2021 found a significant number of schools in England and Wales do not have basic safeguards in place, including the failure to have a policy on recording restraint.
In Northern Ireland, Dierdre Shakespeare and husband Rodney have led the fight for legal changes that would include recording and reporting all restraint and seclusion and abolishing isolation rooms.
Shakespeare, from County Tyrone, started her campaign after her son Harry, 12, who is autistic, was strapped to a chair “like an animal” at Knockavoe School and Resource Centre, in Strabane, between September 2016 and May 2017.
The campaigner wants a rule allowing teachers in the province to use restraint to maintain “good order and discipline” in the classroom repealed.
But Northern Ireland does not have a functioning government due to disagreements over post-Brexit trading arrangements, and the rule over good order and discipline cannot be repealed without a functioning government.
Even so, Shakespeare believes Northern Ireland is making progress on restraint and seclusion since her son’s experience.
She said: “I do think that change is happening. I feel like people have put their shoulders to the wheel and there is movement. It may not be perfect and we may not get everything we want, but there’s change and it is happening.”
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department of Education said it has developed draft statutory guidance on the “reduction and management of restrictive
practices in educational settings”, and it is planning to consult on the guidance early in the new academic year before issuing it.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government has also said they are looking to strengthen the law on restraint and seclusion.
They said: “The Scottish Government looks forward to considering further details of the member’s bill proposal, including the analysis of consultation responses, when they are available.
“Restraint and seclusion in schools must only ever be used to prevent harm and as a last resort, and the Scottish Government is currently exploring options for strengthening the legal framework in this area.”