Government fails again to act over school ‘safe rooms’


newslatestThe government has refused to act after fresh allegations emerged of a special school shutting disabled children in “safe rooms” as a punishment.

The allegations concerning the school in Stoke-on-Trent mean that the Department for Education (DfE) and its education watchdog Ofsted have now been told of serious concerns at four special schools across England.

But DfE is still refusing to order an investigation into the use of such facilities, often called “calm rooms” or “chill-out rooms”.

The families of two former pupils at Abbey Hill school say they were forced into a cupboard-sized “calm room” for lengthy periods, without access to toilet facilities, and “defecated and urinated and showed other signs of considerable stress and anxiety”.

A former teacher from the school has described pupils crying and wailing in distress while being held in the room. Although it was not locked, there was no handle on the inside of the door so they were unable to leave the room.

The parents of the two teenagers, now at another special school, are taking legal action against Abbey Hill and appealing for other parents to come forward if they believe their children may also have been forced into the calm room.

Their lawyers, at legal firm Leigh Day, believe the two boys were subjected to “inhumane and degrading treatment” and that the use of the room for lengthy periods, without “appropriate safeguards”, deprived them of their liberty.

When it introduced the room, the school described it to parents as “a nice chill out room”.

Last year, the Department for Education (DfE) refused to investigate the use of locked punishment rooms when approached by Disability News Service, after three special schools were exposed for apparently using “safe rooms” to control or punish disabled children.

This week, a DfE spokesman said: “Schools may use separate rooms to help calm pupils down, but our guidance states this should only ever happen when it is in the best interests of the child.”

The guidance states that “any use of isolation that prevents a child from leaving a room of their own free will should only be considered in exceptional circumstances and if it reduces the risk presented by the child to themselves and others”.

The spokesman added: “Schools are held to account by Ofsted for the behaviour and safety of pupils, and we will investigate any complaints of mistreatment involving these rooms.”

But DfE has so far refused to say whether it is concerned about the Abbey Hill allegations, or whether there should now be an investigation into the use of “safe rooms”.

Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “Placing children in rooms which they cannot get out of is surely an absolute abuse of their rights, and that is the same whether that strategy is used in a mainstream or a special school.

“It is pretty shocking that these methods still exist, that children are being banged up into rooms without counselling or support.

“To me, it seems very inhumane, and these methods do need to be investigated wherever they are, particularly if they are going on in special schools that are supposed to be providing expertise when they are clearly not.”

She added: “It is quite clear that special schools are not providing appropriate support and the interventions needed to support children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.”

An Ofsted spokeswoman said the watchdog “does not comment on whether a complaint or concerns have been received about a school”.

She added: “We do however take complaints about the use of restraints very seriously and lead inspectors who inspect special educational needs schools have enhanced training on the use of restraints.

“When Ofsted receives a complaint about restraints we have the powers to carry out an emergency inspection of the school.”

But she refused to say whether Ofsted believed there should now be an inquiry into the use of safe rooms across England.

A spokesman for Stoke council said in a statement: “The allegations concern the use of the quiet room at the school and only relate to two pupils who left the school in 2012.

“The quiet room has not been used for more than 12 months. This matter is now the subject of legal discussions and it is not appropriate to comment further.”

21 August 2014