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No Safe Place: Restraint and Seclusion in Scotland's Schools

When I took office in May 2017, I asked children and young people what they want from their Commissioner. They told me, clearly and unequivocally, that they want me to stand up and speak out on their behalf. They want me to use my legal powers to actively protect children and young people’s rights and make sure they are treated fairly, particularly in law. They want me to hold people accountable when the implementation of their rights falls short of what is required.

As Commissioner I have a range of tools and an expert multi-disciplinary team at my disposal to deliver on this commitment. In particular, I have formal powers of investigation which are set out in the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2003. My office can investigate:

“whether, by what means and to what extent, a service provider has regard to the rights, interests and views of children and young people in making decisions or taking actions that affect those children and young people.”

A fuller explanation of the statutory powers is set out in the Terms of Reference for this investigation which were published on 29 March 2018.

Ensuring we make effective use of these powers requires us to balance and prioritise a wide range of competing issues, each of them important; each of them having a legitimate claim on my office’s time and resources. These are often tough calls to make.

However, the decision to make Restraint and Seclusion in Scotland's Schools the first topic for investigation was relatively straightforward. It is based on careful consideration of the rights issues at stake and the implications of those rights being breached, the vulnerability of the children and young people involved, and the extent to which concerns have been raised with me and my staff through the office’s advice function.

My office has received dozens of enquiries, calls and emails from parents and carers of children with disabilities and other Additional Support Needs, as well as professionals who work with them. They told us of their concerns about the treatment of children in schools across Scotland, and in particular about the use of restraint and seclusion techniques as a method of behaviour management. We heard that children can be restrained and/or secluded in response to challenging behaviour, without any consideration of what may lie behind that behaviour or the individual child’s rights and needs.

We have been told of children being “regularly restrained in front of other children”, and of the terrible loss of dignity for children restrained or placed in seclusion who become so distressed that they soil themselves. We have been sent photographs of disabled children with injuries alleged to have been sustained at school while in the care and under the supervision of adult professionals. Parents and carers have spoken to us of the frustration they feel in trying to challenge practice they consider has resulted in physical and emotional harm to their children. Some parents and carers have even resorted to reporting incidents to the police, seeking criminal prosecutions for assault.

There may be times when the use of restraint or seclusion is a necessary response as a measure of last resort to prevent harm to a child or to others. But under any circumstances, it has a profound impact on children: both those who experience it, and those who witness it.

We chose to focus the investigation on two main elements; firstly the existence and adequacy of policies and guidance which reflect the law and the obligations of the State under international human rights instruments. These are an essential pre-requisite to accountability and redress. Secondly, the extent to which incidents are recorded and reported at local authority level. Recording of incidents of restraint and seclusion is recognised internationally as a critical means of ensuring that practice is rights-compliant and appropriately monitored and scrutinised.

This is the first occasion that the office has used the investigative powers granted to me by the Scottish Parliament. I have made a commitment to children and young people that it will not be the last.

Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland