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Teachers and Pupils (Physical Contact)

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ian Lucas.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in an Adjournment debate what I regard as an important matter. It arises from the oral exchange that took place on 30 June between myself and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, following my giving him a couple of examples of physical contact issues relating to teachers and children in their schools.

Let me reprise those examples briefly. One instance involved a little girl who had fallen over and injured herself in the playground and was clearly distressed, but the teacher felt unable to put her arm around her and comfort her as she would like to have done. For the child in question, that was a distressing and inexplicable situation. Someone whom she regarded as effectively a surrogate parent in the school situation was not comforting her, as she would have expected. The second instance, which is rather different, occurred when a young lad who was causing some difficulties for his teacher put himself under a desk in the school and refused to come out. The teacher felt unable to remove the child from under the desk. There he remained until his parents were called, completely disrupting the education of the rest of the class.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said in reply:

“The common-sense thing would be for the hon. Gentleman to advise that school that there is no reason at all not to provide such comfort and support—whether the issue is about reasonable restraint or comfort. Of course teachers should be comforting children. Rather than raise the matter with me, the hon. Gentleman should go back to the school and tell its staff that they should have given that comfort and that they should do so in future.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 588.]

That was the answer from the Minister’s colleague, so I went back not just to that school, but all local schools to test whether those were isolated incidents or whether there was a more general problem. I wrote—in neutral terms, I assure the Minister—to all the schools in my constituency to ask about the matter and whether they thought there was a problem. Not all the schools replied, but 90 per cent. of those that responded indicated that they felt there was a problem, and gave me further instances of how that problem manifested itself. The Minister will understand that it is not sensible to reveal the names of the schools here, but if she wishes to have those names, I am happy to provide them subsequently.

One primary school head teacher wrote to me:

“We have the children for many hours a day and often have to pick up the pieces when there are bereavements, parental arguments/separations/divorces that affect the children deeply. Many children trust us implicitly and to not be able to comfort a child is distressing for all concerned. Many teachers have said that they have refrained from contact due to the fear of unfounded allegations being made.”

Another primary school head teacher wrote:

“Children have become aware of this issue and on some occasions put additional pressures on staff. We had at least four occasions in the last academic year when older children have told members of staff, ‘You can’t touch me’, and, ‘If you touch me, I’ll tell my mum and she’ll get you sacked’, and even on one occasion”—

this is the head teacher himself who was told this by a rude and defiant 11-year-old—that was his description—

“that if I kept him in at lunch time, he would tell his mum that I’d hurt him.”

One secondary school head teacher wrote:

“The nature of investigations”

into assault allegations by children

“give the impression to others that staff are guilty”,

because they are immediately suspended. The head teacher went on:

“Investigations can be long and tortuous; even when teachers are shown to be innocent after a long investigation, some mud sticks and their reputation may not fully recover—it is probably impossible to return to work unscathed by the experience.”

I stress to the Minister that those are the words of head teachers. Another secondary head teacher wrote this:

“I asked a student, who had misbehaved, to leave a corridor. He made no effort to comply. I placed a hand on the back of his shoulder to guide him out of a door to which he responded by immediately phoning the police on his mobile telling them that he had been assaulted by the headteacher. Luckily for me there were many witnesses present.”

There is a problem here that needs to be addressed. Another head talked about students who

“exploit teachers’ vulnerabilities which undermines discipline.”

Another said:

“This is an important issue and Ed Balls’s answer”—

I quoted that to the Minister earlier—

“does not address the very real dilemma faced by teachers.”

Ninety per cent. of respondents indicated that there had been such incidents in their own schools and they were happy to relay them and explain in detail what had happened on individual occasions. All of them said that there had been occasions when they believed that children had made unfounded allegations just to cause difficulties for the teacher, and all said that, had it not been for CCTV or witnesses who happened to be nearby, there would have been serious difficulty in refuting some of the allegations. Another head teacher said:

“I strongly agree that teachers refrain from contact, even when it may be appropriate, for fear of allegations.”

I hope that the Minister accepts that there is a problem.

At this point, I should say that I am grateful to my local evening paper, The Argus, which has been very supportive of my campaign. In fact, it ran an editorial about how classroom disruption—it was referring to the lad under the table—

“puts the brake on everybody’s progress.”

It went on:

“When lessons are interrupted, all our children are learning is how much they can get away with.”

That is a genuine concern; what we are talking about is not only protecting teachers, which is appropriate anyway, but protecting the children who behave properly, as most children do. They want to learn, but see the odd child misbehaving and getting away with it. I am not clear what message that gives, but I am sure that it is not appropriate.

I have raised the issue in writing subsequently with the Minister’s colleagues. On 23 October, I had a reply from Baroness Morgan, who is in the Minister’s Department. She said that revised guidance on the use of force to control or restrain pupils had been issued in November 2007; no doubt the Minister will refer to that. I have looked at that guidance, and let me say quite honestly that there is nothing particularly wrong with it; it is sensible and strikes the right balance.

I have also looked at the extensive physical contact guidance for school and other education staff offered by my own local authority, East Sussex county council. It is a big document, which all schools in my area have been given. Again, I do not have a problem with the content; the issue appears to be that the guidance itself is not enough. Notwithstanding the fact that the guidance may be sound, it is clear that teachers are not happy following it for fear of unfounded allegations. When such allegations are made, it seems that teachers are regarded almost as guilty until proven innocent; they are often suspended and have a cloud hanging over them. As a consequence, common-sense, sensible physical contacts, which in a logical world all of us would wish to see—comforting a child who has hurt herself, dealing with a child who is disrupting the whole class—are not being carried out, notwithstanding the guidance that would support such contact, because teachers are afraid of the consequences of following the guidance.

I want to draw that particular issue to the Minister’s attention. I am not criticising the guidelines or the Government, but saying that there is a problem with teachers, who, from the evidence that I have seen, do not have confidence that if they follow the guidelines they will be supported in the event of being challenged. One of the ways to tackle the issue is for the Government to make it absolutely clear that when teachers are in the classroom or school, they are effectively in loco parentis.

The Minister may say that that is the position, but the reality is that in the case of the boy under the desk the teacher would not remove him but the parents were called to do so. In that teacher’s mind, there was a difference between the power that he was able to exercise legally, or wisely, and the power that the parents could exercise. There should not be a distinction in those matters. The teacher should have the same responsibilities and powers as the parents when the children are in school. I am interested to know whether the Minister can confirm that that is the case and, if so, what she will do to reinforce it through guidance and information to our teachers.

The next issue is what happens when an allegation is made. I suppose that there are a minority of occasions when the allegation is well founded; one cannot deny that that may be so. However, I am absolutely sure that the majority of allegations made against teachers are not well founded, and in those circumstances it is wrong for teachers to be suspended and to have a cloud hanging over them while investigations take place and the police are called. I have lots of examples for the Minister of where the police have been called and have turned up and questioned teachers at great length. Let us think about the power trip that children are given when they call in the police and have teachers held before them answering questions—what an attractive proposition that is for certain young minds. That is inappropriate. There must be an assumption that, unless there is very clear evidence to the contrary, a teacher is probably innocent and should be allowed to carry on in their work. Obviously, if someone has witnessed something horrendous, that is a different situation, but in most cases a teacher should be presumed to be innocent and allowed to carry on. Children should not be given the power to have the teacher suspended or subjected to police investigation, sometimes very overtly.

I am concerned that we do not collectively do enough to support our teachers. I have encountered examples in my constituency—it is a law-abiding constituency, so if it is happening there it is happening elsewhere—of what sometimes happens when a teacher attempts to enforce discipline in a way that all of us in this House would think entirely appropriate. When they keep a child in for detention, the parents arrive and attack the teacher, sometimes physically, and sometimes in front of the children. There is a real problem with a minority of parents who, on occasion, do not support the teachers. I do not know what the answer is, I freely confess, but I recognise the problem, and we have to try to deal with it. If the Minister has something helpful to say, it would be very welcome.

Finally, I want to draw attention to an unfortunate compensation culture within our schools, which is part of the same problem. This is from an article in The Argus headed “£80,000 bill for Sussex school injuries”:

“A ten-year-old boy who pulled his hamstring at school was awarded more than £6,500 in compensation…Another pupil was given £4,200 for slipping on ice in the playground”.

That kind of arrangement is not appropriate in our schools. All of us, when we were at school, went out in the playground, and no doubt we all slipped over on ice at some point. It is not appropriate to sue schools or for them to pay out £4,200. If we get to a situation whereby the children feel that they have power over the teacher in terms of the police and allegations that they can make, and power over the local authority in terms of being able to sue for costs, no doubt through their parents, we are creating a society full of people who have unrealistic expectations and will not adjust properly to the real world when they get outside school.

Not only in the interests of teachers, but in the interests of children, we need to do more than we have done. The Government have got their guidance right—I do not criticise them about that—but there is a problem, and if the Minister has some sensible suggestions to make I would be very pleased to hear them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate. It is obvious from exchanges in the House and correspondence that has been exchanged with the Department that he feels very strongly about the matter.

We want to ensure that every child has the best possible education and experience of childhood. They should not only have a world-class standard of education but feel happy, comfortable and secure at school. School should be a sanctuary where young people learn, confident in the knowledge that they will be safe, secure and looked after. Pastoral care in schools is extremely important. In that sense, it is entirely appropriate for teachers to be figures whom children can look up to, both for guidance and comfort and as guardians, while they are in schools. The example that the hon. Gentleman outlined in his exchange with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, where a child had fallen over in the playground, is a case in point.

Clearly teachers should be able to comfort a child if they are distressed, as the teacher is the natural person for a child to turn to when they are at school. We can understand teachers’ worries, but common sense must be applied. If a pattern emerges or if touching a child is gratuitous, clearly that is wrong. It is also risky to attribute being tactile to a personal teaching style or a way of relating to pupils. However, if a child is distressed, a teacher should be able to feel as though they can take reasonable steps to comfort them. The same applies if children are misbehaving.

School staff who supervise pupils have the statutory power to use force to prevent injury, damage to property or serious breaches of school discipline. If the risks posed by the child leave no viable alternative, teachers will in some cases need to use restraint. The teacher will need to exercise their judgment. Powers exist under the legislation covering the use of force and the power to discipline to enable teachers to take what action is necessary to maintain good order and the safety of themselves, other staff and pupils. The legislation has existed in its current form since 1998 and was re-enacted by section 93 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

On the whole, our teachers exercise good sense and judgment when dealing with such issues. There are only a small number of allegations of staff using excessive force—around 2,500 a year in a sector of well over 10 million students and 1 million staff. About 6 per cent. of all allegations are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. But of course, any instance of excessive force or abuse is one too many and we must do everything that we can to guard against it. We want to make the recording and reporting of such incidents a statutory requirement for schools, so that there is a clear account of what happened, in order to protect pupils and teachers and so that parents are fully informed. We intend to legislate for that in our fourth Session education and skills Bill. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be a member of the Committee that considers that Bill, when we can explore those issues further.

I know that some have concerns that teachers will be left exposed to allegations and I am acutely aware of the devastating effects that false accusations can have on a person’s career, family and health. However, those risks must be balanced against ensuring that children are safe in school. That is why we have rigorous checks for those working with children, from the earliest years right through school.

As the hon. Gentleman said, when allegations arise, it is important that they are dealt with as quickly, fairly and professionally as possible. We have been working on how to improve the handling of allegations, and in 2005 we issued guidance on how to handle cases in a more consistent and timely way. To support teachers further and to reduce the chance of such situations arising in the first place, we have published guidance to help clarify their position in circumstances that might call for physical contact.

We made it clear in the guidance that we issued in 2007, in “Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education”, that

“It is not realistic to suggest that teachers should never touch pupils”.

We issued revised guidance in 2007, entitled “The Use of Force to Control or Restrain Pupils”, that includes many of the principles and much of the advice originally set out in the circulars for special schools. Non-statutory guidance, contained in “Safer Working Practice for Adults who Work with Children and Young People”, was refreshed by our network of allegations management advisers in November last year. That guidance states:

“There are…occasions when it is entirely appropriate for…adults to have some physical contact with the child or young person with whom they are working.”

It also notes that

“an action that is appropriate with one child in one set of circumstances may be inappropriate in another, or with a different child. Adults…should use their professional judgement at all times”.

The Department’s TeacherNet gives more direct advice to teachers to help them to develop that judgment, better assess difficult situations and make the right choices. The guidance deals with providing comfort to children, which has been mentioned, and states:

“There may be occasions where a distressed pupil needs comfort and reassurance which may include physical comforting such as a caring parent would give.”

It also covers the use of physical restraint and a range of related issues: dealing with complaints and allegations, post-incident support, staff training, and reducing the risk of such situations arising in the first place.

All our guidance is supported by specialist publications that discuss more specific issues, such as dealing with pupils who display extreme behaviour relating to a disability, and the use of physical intervention for pupils with severe behavioural difficulties. We plan to consolidate all our guidance on the use of force or physical interventions by school staff into a single document next year. When we have our consultations with our social partners, I shall try to establish whether we can work to ensure that teachers are able to act with confidence.

The Minister has referred to a welter of guidance. It all seems very sensible, and I think that the consolidation into a single document will be useful, but the essential problem—which I have identified—is that, notwithstanding the sensible guidance, large numbers of teachers apparently do not feel able to act on it. Has the Minister any idea how to surmount that problem?

I should like to begin by exploring the research that the hon. Gentleman has done in his constituency. I must say that I have not heard of large numbers of teachers not feeling able to act on the guidance in other parts of the country, and we may need to establish whether that is the case. It is certainly unlikely that it is an isolated incidence, confined to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I should also say that when I contacted representatives of his local authority they said that they were not aware of any problems. Perhaps we simply need to bring the issue out into the open.

Our single document will take into account conclusions from the review of restraint in secure settings for children and young people, which will be published shortly. However, we are also focusing on the need to help pupils to manage conflict and resolve disputes themselves before they reach the point at which teachers must be involved.

The new secondary curriculum places a broader focus on emotional health and well-being, and allows more time for learning those wider skills. Programmes such as SEAL—social and emotional aspects of learning—are creating a whole-school approach to harmonious learning. That programme is fostering better relationships between pupils and teachers, helping students to recognise and manage anger and conflict in an appropriate way and to understand the feelings and points of view of others.

We also propose to make personal, social and health education a statutory part of the curriculum. Sir Alasdair MacDonald is currently undertaking a review of how we might implement that. As my noble Friend Lady Morgan said in another place,

“PSHE will help children and young people understand what is appropriate and what is not appropriate touching from adults and… will give young people the confidence and assertiveness to be clear about what they see as acceptable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 659.]

For learning to be truly effective, children need to feel safe, secure and happy at school, as well as receiving a high standard of education. No child should feel uncomfortable or threatened, and teachers should feel confident that they can manage situations in an appropriate and effective way, without fear of being penalised if the actions that they took were appropriate and absolutely necessary.

It is Government's responsibility to ensure that the systems are in place to make a pupil’s education and childhood as positive and as safe as they can be. We take that responsibility very seriously. We have acted, and will continue to act, to keep students and staff safe, and to build the best possible education system and world-class children’s services.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.