Why are we restraining and secluding so many disabled children?

In March this year (2021) the Equality and Human Rights Commission is expected to release the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into the use of what are called restrictive interventions in schools. Paused due to Covid, it will doubtless show the widespread use of disturbing techniques, including restraint that harms, isolation booths and other forms of enforced isolation. It will also show patchy information about the use of the techniques, as schools are not under any duty to record those interventions – even when they harm a child. I have been investigating the use of these interventions for over a year, talking regularly to campaigners, lawyers and regulators – and have done some freedom of information requests in schools as well – of which more later. This is another shocking example of how we are failing disabled people.

Disabled children are the most likely to experience these interventions. There are many aspects to restrictive interventions that are disturbing, but one particularly harrowing finding is that children as young as three have been subjected to them. The lives of disabled children matter as much as the lives of non-disabled children and the UK has long led the way in calling for the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream education. But factors including underfunding and poor training of teachers in knowing how to support disabled children at moments when they find school difficult may have contributed to frequent separation of children with special needs from their non-disabled class mates. This de facto segregation starts early, and means that disabled children’s experience of education diverges early from other children – even in what appears to be a mainstream setting. This leads to a parallel life for disabled children in which many are traumatised by their experience of education. At transition, when children become young adults, oftentimes they then experience a crisis – and end up in other institutions, such as assessment and treatment units (ATUs). They then get restrained and secluded again. I’ve written about the awful state of our ATUs previously.

That journey of harm starts in school – so what can we do about it? As I said, I submitted FOIs to schools across England before the outbreak of Covid-19 to find out more about monitoring, reporting and incidence. I am not going to release those results in full as they are already out of date. Schools won’t be the same after the end of lockdown. But what was clear from the FOIs was that few schools monitor their use of restrictive interventions, many do not report their use to parents or carers and incidence varies widely across schools. Different practices are also in play, depending on the training that schools receive from external providers. Some children have ended up with horrific injuries, including broken limbs and severe trauma. One child had their vision impaired as a result of restraint. Many end up with mental health impacts that then, as I said, may lead them to moments of crisis later in their lives – so that they end up experiencing similar restrictive interventions in ATUs, secure children homes, prison or mental health settings.

It’s time that a light was shone on the use of these practices in schools – and schools need to monitor them properly, report them in detail to parents and carers and be aware that these are hugely traumatic to experience. Of course teaching staff must also be protected from harm, but there are other ways of managing behaviour that don’t cause physical and mental harm.

Beth Morrison, who has campaigned to highlight the damage done by such techniques in schools, is in many ways responsible for the EHRC kick-starting this inquiry. Disabled children and their parents owe her a debt of thanks for her work. Other key figures include Nick Hobbs and the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson and other parent campaigners including Deirdre Shakespeare and Elly Chapple. All of the parents have fought for the harm done to their children by restraint to be recognised and also for others affected. This has been a parent led campaign to reveal harm and create change – I hope the EHRC will honour their involvement and transform educational practice in this area for the next generation of children.

For me, as a writer and journalist who has investigated human rights abuses for many years, this investigation has opened my eyes into the rights of disabled children. I offered work on this important topic to most mainstream newspapers. Few of them replied and none of them thought it was news-worthy enough to make space for on the news pages. It doesn’t matter who suffered as a result of these interventions – even when Paris Hilton has spoken out about her experience and campaigned to highlight the issue it receives very little focus. It says a lot about how the media thinks of disability – and disabled children in particular – that this subject has received so little media attention.

1 thought on “Why are we restraining and secluding so many disabled children?”

  1. Hi Catherine. There have been many within both adult and child services campaigning for the reduction of services for some decades and meeting significant resistance. Some colleagues and I produced a report on the dangers of seclusion in schools a decade ago. What Beth has done brilliantly however via the moral authority she enjoys as a parent is to draw attention to these issues and ultimately generate change in a way that those within the professions struggled to do.

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