Use of reasonable force and restrictive practices in schools

20th April 2023

On the 16 February 2023 the Department of Education (DfE) launched a consultation on the use of reasonable force and restrictive practices in schools. The DfE has advised that this consultation reflects its commitment to minimising the use of restraint in all schools and, in instances where restraint is necessary and lawful, to support schools to use it as safely as possible.

What is the current guidance for schools?

The non-statutory advice from the DfE “Use of Reasonable Force” (July 2013) applies to school leaders and staff in all schools, including academies. This advice defines ‘reasonable force’ as covering a broad range of actions used by teachers that involve a degree of physical contact with pupils. ‘Reasonable’ in these circumstances is defined as using no more force than is needed.

All members of school staff have a legal power to use reasonable force and schools do not require parental consent to use force on a student. Section 93 of the Education and Inspections Act confirms that school staff “may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purpose of preventing a pupil from doing (or continuing to do) any of the following:

  1. committing any offence,
  2. causing personal injury to, or damage to the property of, any person (including the pupil himself), or
  3. prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline at the school or among any pupils receiving education at the school, whether during a teaching session or otherwise.”

The use of force in schools is usually to either control or restrain. This can range from passive physical contact, such as standing between pupils, or active physical contact such as where a student needs to be restrained to prevent violence or injury.

The decision on whether to use ‘reasonable force’ to control or restrain a child is down to the professional judgement of the staff concerned. Any decision should always depend on individual circumstances and must take into account any disability, certain health conditions or SEN that the pupil may have.  When using ‘reasonable force’ in response to risks presented by incidents involving children with SEND, mental health problems or with medical conditions, schools will need to carefully recognise the additional vulnerability of these groups.

Should schools have a ‘reasonable force’ policy?

Every school is required to have a behaviour policy and to make this policy known to staff, parents, and pupils. Although there is no statutory requirement to have a policy on the use of force, it is considered good practice to set out clearly the circumstances in which reasonable force might be used.

Headteachers and trustees are encouraged to adopt sensible policies, which allow and support staff to make appropriate physical contact. By taking steps to ensure that staff, pupils, and parents are clear about when force might be used, the school will reduce the likelihood of complaints being made when force has been used properly.

The statutory guidance “Keeping Children Safe in Education” (September 2022) advises that schools should not have a ‘no contact’ policy. Having such a policy creates a real risk that may place a member of staff in breach of their duty of care towards a pupil or prevent them taking the action needed to prevent a pupil causing harm.

Schools should also ensure that all staff are trained in the circumstances in which reasonable force may be used, both as part of their induction and regular refresher training on managing pupil behaviour. This training should include consideration of the factors, that must be taken into account, in reaching a judgement as to whether the use of physical restraint is appropriate. These include:

  • the seriousness of the incident, assessed by the effect of the injury, damage or disorder that is likely to result if force is not used;
  • the chances of achieving the desired result by other means;
  • the relative risks associated with physical intervention compared with using other strategies.

What does this mean for schools?

The current consultation on the use of reasonable force and restrictive practices in schools will close in May 2023. It is anticipated that the responses gathered through the consultation process will provide an understanding of how reasonable force, restraint and restrictive practices are currently used in schools to inform any revisions required to the current guidance.

Following the consultation schools should consider reviewing and possibly updating any existing policies that include the use of force. Additionally, schools that do not currently have any policies in place that set out how restraint, including reasonable force, is to be used should seek advice from their legal team.

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