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It is a pleasure to follow Norman Lamb and to work with him to try to resolve this problem—a problem that need not exist at all.
We hear the phrase “safeguarding children” all the time, but words mean nothing if they are not matched by commensurate actions. We all know that looking after our children well, getting to know them as they grow and finding ways to make their lives safe, happy and fulfilled, are what every parent aspires to—and, indeed, I hope, every teacher when they embark on their careers. It is not always easy: children can be stubborn, petulant and anxious, much like their parents, probably.
Children have a natural curiosity to discover, to learn, to play, and every good parent or teacher enjoys nothing more than fuelling those interests and having the wonderful satisfaction of watching the child blossom, discover new things, learn about their unique character and gifts, and start their life’s journey with pleasure and excitement. Sadly, for vulnerable children, those with physical, neurological or emotional higher needs than most, that vision of a healthy and nurturing childhood can only be a dream. The reality is that many of those most in need of nurture and care find that they get none of that. By their particular difference, they struggle with the “normal” learning environment, and as those around them fail to realise that their charges are in distress, the children use the only tools they have to demonstrate their anxieties, fears, or even terrors, and display what we call “challenging behaviour”.
I am not a fan of politically correct language, but what does “challenging behaviour” mean? It means lashing out or perhaps hiding away: it means a child has been put under too much stress and so the most basic survival instincts kicked in. The child, fearful of whatever it is that is going on around them or happening to them, tries to protect themselves with the limited tools available to them. As the mother of a now nearly 20-year-old university student, whose Asperger’s was undiagnosed until he was nearly nine years old, learning to provide a world around him so that he could thrive, rather than struggle and suffer from profound anxiety attacks because of the normal environment around him, was a learning curve. But once we found an intervention that worked, having identified the source of the distress, his anxiety and “challenging behaviour”, as it is now called, simply fell away. A bright boy, a happy child, reading for hours at a time. Other children near him—not so good. People touching his food—profoundly upsetting. Bright lights or unexpected loud noises—meltdown guaranteed.
My son was lucky beyond words. We had teachers who were always willing to learn how to support him, so that he could enjoy school. A beanbag hidden behind a teacher’s desk, to escape to if a lesson was too noisy. An agreement that he only ate certain foods, and an explanation to the other children as to why. Extraordinary staff who learned, with us and with him, how to provide a positive environment. In so doing, they allowed my son to thrive and succeed within mainstream school. Not every child with special needs is so lucky.
I first met the wonderful Ella, one of my younger constituents, when her mother, Elly, contacted me shortly after I was first elected, in a state of profound distress and anger at the long-term physical damage caused to her daughter by the use of physical restraint, leading to violent reactive behaviour which left her with permanent physical damage. There seemed to be no way to empower Ella’s parents to challenge the school, nor to ask for justification for the use of restraint. That family are extraordinary. Nothing—although so many brick walls have been put in their way—has stopped them battling to drive change for their daughter and other vulnerable children.
The school did not help. The council did not really get as stuck in as it should have done to meet its duty of care to this bright young girl. Only Ella’s parents and friends really fought to effect change for their girl, and for others they know need better support and the enactment of what having a duty of care actually means.
We need the Government to help us change the existing—inadequate at best—systems, from basic national guidance for teachers and support staff to evidence-based early intervention support for families. Learning what works for your child’s health and wellbeing is not easy, and every parent is always a novice, so let us share the evidence and best practice, to help each other most effectively. In doing so, positive behaviour support training in schools will quickly change the challenges into good environments for these children, and the adults in loco parentis for them while in their care, from whence reductions in cost to the state and, most important, the reduction of—and hopefully an end to—the unnecessary, unacceptable, irreparable damage to these young people. Be it physical or emotional damage, so much can be avoided with intelligent and supportive environments.
All children are born with great potential, and I always say it is the adults around them who either help them to thrive or allow them to fail. We can do so much better to get this right early on—support parents and thereby help each child to reach their potential. To ensure that we get this right, we need a safeguarding system that is fit for purpose. Ofsted needs to be inspecting specifically for safeguarding outcomes for disabled and special needs children, and for that all schools must have a robust, mandatory recording system of all interventions with their pupils, so that parents, councils and Ofsted can see what is actually going on and hold them to account.
In my work on children’s services on the Public Accounts Committee, I continue to be dismayed that Ofsted seems to have little guidance to inspect the outcomes for our most vulnerable children. In this area of restraint usage and oversight of special needs management, through to foster and kinship care, we need to see clearer inspection rules and a much stronger accountability system, which includes the recording and reporting of restrictive interventions and actions, so that harm to our most precious children can be held to account.