The government has again refused to investigate how many special schools are shutting disabled children in “safe rooms” as a punishment, after a head teacher was banned from teaching for leaving children locked in a “time out room”.
A Teaching Agency disciplinary hearing heard that Annette Sale left children locked in the room at the Phoenix Centre in Surrey for “lengthy periods of time”.
Sale, who did not attend the hearing, also failed to monitor incidents involving the physical restraint of pupils, advocated the use of physical force to transfer a nine-year-old pupil into the centre, and failed to act on child protection concerns.
The case is now the third in which special schools have been exposed as using locked “safe rooms” to control or punish disabled children.
Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) faced questions after Ofsted launched an investigation into claims that children with autism at a special school in London had been forced into a “safe room” by teachers as a punishment.
And 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 the necessary court order.
A spokeswoman for Surrey County Council said: “We would certainly not support such practices and have no reason to believe that there are any going on [now] in our Surrey schools.”
The pupil referral unit where Sale worked, in Redhill, Surrey, provided support for about 16 pupils aged between five and 11 who had been excluded or were at risk of exclusion from mainstream school because of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
But after a whistle-blower contacted the council with concerns in 2009, an investigation was launched, and Sale was first suspended, and then sacked.
She denied leaving pupils unsupervised in the locked room, and claimed the school was under-staffed.
The Teaching Agency finally heard her case last month and – in her absence – found her guilty of “unacceptable professional conduct”, banning her “indefinitely” from teaching.
Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she believed the three cases were just “the tip of the iceberg”.
She backed the idea of an inquiry into the use of locked punishment rooms, but said she would also like to see an “overhaul of the way these types of methods are used”.
Flood said she would like to see any inquiry expanded to examine facilities such as “nurture rooms, multi-sensory rooms, or any space that is separate from the learning environment”, which she believes are increasingly used for a kind of “subtle segregation” in both special and mainstream schools.
She added: “Any method that a school uses, if it is not being looked at, scrutinised, inspected, has the potential to be misused.”
But the DfE has again refused to sanction an investigation into the use of locked punishment rooms by special schools.
A DfE spokesman said: “Anyone who believes that a child may be at risk should immediately contact the police and the local children’s social services department.
“We will always consider any evidence of mistreatment of pupils at individual schools and take appropriate action.”
1 March 2013