Northern Ireland

Education committee calls on minister to urgently develop new guidance on restraint and seclusion

A motion, which secured cross-party support, was drawn up by education committee chairman Chris Lyttle
A motion, which secured cross-party support, was drawn up by education committee chairman Chris Lyttle

ASSEMBLY members have demanded urgent new guidance on restraint and seclusion of school children - particularly those with additional needs.

The use of both practices on vulnerable pupils and those with special educational needs was debated yesterday.

A motion, which secured cross-party support, was drawn up by education committee chairman Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party.

It followed evidence heard earlier this year from mother Deirdre Shakespeare, from the Harry's Law campaign, who said she only realised how much her son was being restrained at his special school after seeing a photo diary.

The committee was told that 20 primary-age children reported injuries allegedly caused by restraints used in schools. Many were non-verbal and parents reported physical injuries including bruising, scratches from Velcro and, in one case, multiple abrasions from being dragged.

Harry's Law would make it compulsory for schools to report to parents and the Education Authority when they restrained or isolated a pupil.

The committee's motion called on Education Minister Peter Weir and his department to urgently develop new guidance.

It noted concern at the lack of statutory guidance from the Department of Education on the use of restrictive intervention, particularly on those with physical or learning disabilities.

Members demanded that Mr Weir develop and introduce "up-to-date statutory guidance on therapeutic-based, non-aversive, positive behaviour strategies".

They are also seeking funded mandatory training for all staff working directly with young people, statutory guidance on restraint definitions as well as "last resort definitions, and human rights based guidance in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child".

There should also be mandatory recording and reporting of all incidents of restrictive intervention and the abolition of isolation rooms, the assembly heard.

Mr Lyttle said the existing guidance was more than 20 years old and did not reflect present-day protections for children's rights nor the inclusion of alternative practices that had been adopted successfully by other jurisdictions.

"We fully recognise the difficulties faced by teachers and school staff in dealing with these situations. It is crucial that they are provided with a clear direction by the department and with the time and appropriate training to acquire the necessary understanding and skills to deal effectively and sensitively with children and young people with additional support needs," he said.

"While examining this issue in recent months, we have heard many harrowing and indeed devastating stories from the parents of children and young people who have been subjected to current restraint and seclusion practices. The life, happiness and potential of their children is at the very heart of this issue and we commend them for their determination and bravery in telling their stories. As public representatives we must do everything possible to ensure that other children do not suffer the same experiences in the future."

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan spoke about an incident in which a child was tied to a chair with their own school bag.

“The measure of a society is how it caters for its most vulnerable," he said.

"We need to ensure there is oversight and accountability."

Mr Weir said progress was being made and added that he shared the concerns of members.

"Such treatment is wrong and should not have happened," he said.