Schools should be genuinely child-centred – Part 1: special educational needs and safeguarding are connected

Roger Titcombe's picture
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Why are increasing numbers of children being physically restrained in mainstream and special schools?

On 25 February 2019 TES carried a story about physical restraint of school pupils. The DfE commented on the story as follows.

“At times, it may be necessary to use reasonable force to restrain a pupil – for example, to break up a fight in order to protect teachers and other pupils”

Fair enough, nothing new there and no-one would argue with that, but then on 26 June, the physical restraint of schoolchildren was featured on Ch4 News.

It referenced a concerning January 2019 report by the Challenging Behaviour Foundation which mainly concerns practices in Special Schools, but then I played the Ch4 News clip again and noted that the first parent interviewed, ‘Viv’, clearly stated that her child was a pupil in a mainstream primary school. When she questioned her son about an incident in which he suffered injury from being restrained by two teachers, he had great difficulty identifying the occasion she meant from his routine experience of regular, painful, often prolonged restraint.

I was head of an inner urban comprehensive secondary school for 14 years, retiring in 2003. Our school admitted a high proportion of  pupils with a wide variety of Special Educational Needs (SEN). Restraint was never used in our school as a classroom behaviour control strategy. In fact, I had never heard of such a thing in my entire 32 year career as a teacher. Our own children, all born in the 1970s, not only never reported being restrained at school, they had never witnessed it applied to any other pupil. This is important, because if Viv’s son had indeed been subject to systematic physical restraint on a large number of occasions, then this must have been witnessed by hundreds of other pupils creating a chilling school culture of fear that is profoundly inhibiting of quality, developmental education. So what is going on? Is this a particular feature of Academisation? Is OfSTED aware of it?

There have been huge cuts in funding and support for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN)

On taking up my present junior school governorship, the greatest shock has been the dramatic reduction in SEN funding and provision, with the school largely having to fund such support from the delegated budget. The 1981 Education Act had brought about major reforms and to a considerable extent also triggered the resourcing needed to support the expensive Statementing system, and later following the 1988 Education Act, the Non-Statutory SEN element of LEA delegated budget funding formulae.

This comprehensive and detailed NUT report sets out the progress that resulted from the 1981 Act, so making clear the scale of the current retraction of LA support and the persisting severe under-funding that followed from the austerity policies of the 2010 Coalition government.

Do children now need safeguarding against the actions of their schools?

I am asking who is now taking effective responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of our schoolchildren while they are attending their schools? This especially applies to Academies where LA Social Services are reluctant to intervene when they certainly would if neighbours reported such treatment by parents. My teaching career began in 1971, when the ‘In Loco Parentis’ principle made it clear that safeguarding was the responsibility of schools and teachers. This was reinforced by the spirit of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which imposed a general statutory ‘duty of care’, but who would have imagined that 45 years on children, and especially those with SEN, could be in need of protection from the abusive actions of their schools?

This was also the theme of a follow-up feature on Ch4 News on 27 June 2019 in which presenter Jackie Long stated:

They are barely, it seems, through the school gates before getting excluded – pupils as young as five years old who are being sent out of mainstream education. Extraordinary new figures out today reveal almost 6,000 pupils between the ages of five and ten are in pupil referral units or alternative provision across England – an astonishing increase of 85 per cent since 2011. 

Can excluding children so young from school ever be justified and what has happened to them since? The answer is even more shocking. The Education Select Committee Report of July 2018 stated:

Pupils in alternative provision should be able to access GCSEs and technical
qualifications. However, we were told that 1% of children in alternative provision get five good GCSEs with English and maths but 99% do not. A high proportion of offenders detained in youth custody and prisons have been permanently excluded from their schools. As schools are well aware of these disastrous outcomes, it is increasingly being argued that the unjustified excluding of children from school is abusive.

By the time of our 1998 OfSTED (the last under my headship), after the introduction of our ‘behaviour curriculum’ and School Council based policies, all exclusions, fixed term and permanent, had for some time been reduced to zero. This inspection resulted in a very favourable report. The school also passed its next OfSTED inspection six years later in 2004, a year after my retirement.

Is it ever justified to administer drugs to control the behaviour of school pupils?

This first became an issue in my headship school in the mid 1990s, when we admitted a boy into Y7 who had been diagnosed with ADHD. The School Medical Officer prescribed Ritalin. This was effective in that he became easier to teach at school and caused less stress to his parents at home. However, I wasn’t happy with the decision and (unsuccessfully) challenged it with the LEA. Pupils with SEN (with and without Statements) formed a large proportion of our intake. I argued that this boy should have had an SEN Statement to pay for in-class support from a trained Teaching Assistant, in the same way that other Statemented pupils were supported by the school. Ritalin prescriptions were much cheaper, and his parents supported the medication, but where was the evidence that they were safe in the long term?

That was back in the days when SEN was well funded and LEAs employed large teams of expert SEN advisers who worked with schools, so it is no surprise that since SEN funding has been so drastically cut along with the LEA specialist teams, the administering of behaviour controlling drugs, including Ritalin to ever younger schoolchildren appears to have hugely increased.

May children need protection from the actions of their parents?

I wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as far back as 2014, stating that schools and Local Authorities needed to take the lead. Little seems to have changed. There has since been a tiny number of successful prosecutions, but more alarmingly, there are still no systematic policies in place for the screening of children and the detection of this life-changing abuse. The only way this can be achieved is through appropriately funded, democratically controlled Local Authorities, which must be required by law to maintain registers of all children living in their area. Such registers should contain information about the school attended and any issues of concern raised by the school or members of the community. GPs and hospitals should also be legally required to report signs of abuse.

LEAs used to maintain large teams of Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) with powers to enter schools, inspect registers  and raise issues with heads. In Cumbria they were extremely effective. They now barely exist and even LA schools have to ‘buy in’ their services using the delegated budget. It is not just FGM, but other forms of abuse inflicted by parents such as ‘breast ironing’ and forced marriages along with those inflicted by schools including abusive discipline and off rolling, that need LA empowered systems for them to be effectively addressed.

There is a relatively new development that rarely reaches the media. This concerns pre-pubescent children being given strong hormonal drugs to prevent the onset of puberty. This was addressed by the BBC. Here is a medical view that is reported in more detail here.

Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh  point to a recent and dramatic increase in young people receiving treatment for gender identity issues. One of many examples they use: Gender Identity Development Service in the United Kingdom saw a 2,000 percent increase in referrals in seven years—from 94 children in 2009-2010 to 1,986 in 2016-2017. While more and more gender-dysphoric children are getting treatment, the authors argue that very little is known about the full spectrum of psychological and physical consequences stemming from puberty suppression and cross-sex hormone therapy. While they often are pushed as a fully reversible, harmless, and cautionary treatment option, the reality, according to the authors, is that children, parents, and doctors are making decisions in scientific ignorance. Their paper challenges three key claims.

 First, that the treatment is reversible. Puberty blockers are presented as a “let’s just hold off puberty” solution, meant to delay the development of the most prominent features of a child’s biological sex while the child wrestles with his or her gender identity. But Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh argue that it remains unknown if regular sex-typical puberty will resume following suppression. Indeed, “there are virtually no published reports, even case studies, of adolescents withdrawing from puberty-suppressing drugs and then resuming the normal pubertal development typical for their sex,” according to the authors.

 Second, that the treatment is harmless. “Puberty suppression hormones prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics, arrest bone growth, decrease bone accretion, prevent full organization and maturation of the brain, and inhibit fertility,” Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh write in a Supreme Court brief filed in the Gavin Grimm case. They go on to list other possible side effects of cross-gender hormones, oral estrogen, and testosterone, including sterility, coronary disease, cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, and breast cancer.

Finally, that the treatment is cautionary. The authors note that the best, most-cited studies conclude that most children with gender dysphoria come to embrace their birth sex. But Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh warn hormone therapy often solidifies a child’s gender dysphoria, driving him or her to persist in identifying as transgender, instead of allowing for the likely result: growing out of it. “Gender identity for children is elastic (that is, it can change over time) and plastic (that is, it can be shaped by forces like parental approval and social conditions),” write the doctors, warning that if gender-affirming care causes children to continue identifying as the opposite sex, children will be exposed to hormonal and surgical interventions they otherwise would not need. Instead of accepting hormone suppression without question, Hruz, Mayer, and McHugh instead recommend treating it like what it is: a radical experimental therapy carried out on children.

At the age of 72 I am shocked by this. We have children, all now in their 40s. They have completely different abilities and personalities. We have many grandchildren. These are also quite different from each other. This is equally true of the children and grandchildren of other relatives and friends. In my teaching career I have taught large numbers of (non twin) siblings. It is unusual for them not to differ markedly in personalities, attitudes and dispositions. This is surely a general pattern that is widely observed in families.

It is the inevitable consequence of gene mixing through sexual reproduction, which dominates all life on this planet for a reason: the resulting genetic variation in offspring is favoured by the mechanisms of evolution.

Of course we love all our grandchildren in all of their diversity. Their parents equally taught them to love and respect themselves, making the most of their diverse talents. It is of direct relevance to this article that schools should have the same attitude to individual diversity. They must at all times be fully inclusive.

I recognise that the views of younger generations are changing and may be different, but the primary role of adults must surely be to encourage the healthy development of children and safeguard them from harm. Who is now protecting the children when adults make dubious decisions that threaten their welfare? The child health crisis arising from growing parental rejection of vaccination is another example.

The lower legal age limit for consenting to the making of permanent changes to one’s body is 18 (adulthood). This applies to having tattoos, regardless of parental consent. I cannot see why it should be easier for an emotionally  unstable child to chemically delay their puberty with parental consent than it is for them to unwisely get a tattoo that they may regret in later life.

The fact is that unlike gender, sex is binary, permanent and the chance consequence of whether an X or Y sperm gets to fertilise the egg of the mother. Why would any parent condone subjecting their daughter to the risks of hormonal drug therapy when so many opportunities have been opened up for adult women? A decision to marry a man and have his children is now a choice, not an automatic social expectation. Women can now aspire to be professional footballers or boxers, Chief Executives or Prime Ministers, film stars or High Court Judges.

Inevitably, a wide variety of views are held on this issue, but the Statutory Guidance is clear, from which I quote the following.

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is defined for the purposes of this guidance as: 

  • protecting children from maltreatment 
  • preventing impairment of children’s health or development.

Administering drugs to delay the onset of puberty clearly impairs the development of the child. In a hospital setting a child with a life-threatening  illness may require such therapy. For example in the treatment of cancers, a parent is likely to consent to their child’s taking such drugs. Gender dysphoria in children remains controversial and is not life threatening. Whatever the views of parents and educationalists it appears that puberty delaying drugs are being increasingly administered to children with the consent of schools and some doctors, but in the absence of sufficient formal safeguarding. This cannot be right.

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