Government silent on need for inquiry into punishment of autistic pupils

The government has failed to say if it believes there is a need for a national inquiry into the use of locked rooms to punish autistic children in special schools.

It faced questions over the issue after schools inspector Ofsted launched an investigation into claims that children at a special school in London had been forced into a so-called “safe room” by teachers as a punishment.

The magazine Autism Eye had spoken to a former teacher at the school who claims he saw a small, “placid” girl being walked into the safe room by a member of staff, who then held onto the handle so she couldn’t leave.

Another girl from his own class was forced into the room because she had been “pulling things off the wall”, while a member of staff reacted to the same girl “jostling” in the playground by telling a colleague to “just throw her in the safe room’”.

A third child was zipped into a tent in the safe room because he had been making high-pitched noises in the classroom, while the whistleblower was told that another child had put his head through the glass door of the safe room after being forced inside.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she was not surprised by the allegations.

She said: “Any environment that is segregated generates that kind of culture. Why should anyone be at all surprised?”

And she suggested that many “multi-sensory areas” were used by special schools as punishment rooms.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, (CBF) which supports children and adults with learning difficulties, high support needs and behaviour which challenges, said it was “all too often made aware of situations where inappropriate and restrictive practices are used to contain an individual whose behaviour may present challenges”.

The charity said such children and adults “continue to be at greater risk of abuse and inappropriate treatment”.

A CBF spokeswoman said: “We hope that the on-going investigation will highlight the need for greater understanding of challenging behaviours and the need for training around more effective strategies to support behaviour change.”

Last year, the charity Scope announced it had decided to close one of its residential special schools after a court found it had repeatedly breached the rights of a teenager with autism by confining him to a padded room to control his “challenging behaviour”, without seeking a court order.

An Ofsted spokeswoman said it had been passed details of the latest allegations by Autism Eye before Christmas, and was investigating the claims.

But she said Ofsted was unable to say whether such incidents were occurring in other special schools.

She said: “What is the overall picture? We do not collect information in a way where we can say ‘this is or is not happening across the country’.

“They are illegal practices, to lock up a child in any capacity. Whether they have special needs or not, it is illegal.”

When asked by Disability News Service whether there should be a broader inquiry into the use of “punishment rooms” by special schools, she said: “We cannot take that decision. It would be up to the government to decide, if they felt there were serious concerns of this abuse happening up and down the country.”

Edward Timpson, the Conservative children’s minister, said the allegations at the London school were “deeply concerning”.

He said: “No child should be treated in this shocking way. I have asked officials to ensure that all appropriate investigations are taking place.”

But when asked about a wider investigation, a Department for Education spokeswoman has so far failed to comment.

The council responsible for the special school said it investigated the allegations earlier this year and found there was “no case to answer”, while it claimed Ofsted was “happy” with its investigation.

A council spokeswoman said: “The council has investigated and found there is no case to answer. The council refutes the allegations of any children ever being locked in a room for punishment.”

She said the council was “fully supportive” of the school “and its practices”, and that an Ofsted inspection last May had seen it graded as “outstanding” for the behaviour and safety of pupils.

21 February 2013

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