Serious child protection allegations have been made by parents, who claim they were forced to remove their children with additional support needs from a Glasgow primary school.
The Ferret has spoken to the parents of four children – aged six to nine – who attended St Charles’ Primary in Kelvinside in the last year and raised concerns. One child is still at the school.
All have additional support needs including confirmed or suspected autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Many of the complaints revolve around what parents claim is inappropriate use of seclusion. Three parents claimed their child was shut in a small gym changing room, which they say is used for storage.
Glasgow City Council denies the allegations which it says have been investigated, in some cases by police and social work.
In the case of seclusion, the council maintains the room was used to help “de-escalate” challenging behaviour in a safe space, in adherence with council policy.
But parents – who claim the door to the small room was held shut – say the practice has caused their children high anxiety.
One mother alleged in complaints to the police that the door was sometimes locked. They question why the school’s sensory room, or other child-friendly spaces, were not used.
In a 2018 report Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner raised concerns about the disproportionate use of seclusion and restraint against children with additional support needs across Scotland.
Other serious safety concerns at St Charles’ were raised after repeated incidents during which vulnerable children, as young as six, were able to get out of the school alone and unsupervised.
In one instance a child crossed two roads to reach a grandparent’s house. In another, the child was found on the street by another parent. His mother had not been informed he was missing.
The council says the school was not found to be at fault.
However parents said their children’s safety could not be guaranteed, leading some to remove them from the school. Two of the children have now been out of school for several months, despite laws that mean the local authority has a duty to offer alternative education.
Lawyers and charities said child protection concerns must be reported. They claimed what appeared to be “institutional” failures must be fully investigated.
They added that similar problems facing children with additional needs were replicated in schools across the country.
Dawn Elliott, whose six-year-old we’re calling Archie to protect his identity, said her son had been attending Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) since he was three with suspected ASD and a recent diagnosis of ADHD.
“At nursery they encouraged me to put Archie into mainstream education,” she said. “I was told most of the specialist units had closed down and that it would be the best place for him.”
But within weeks of starting primary one at St Charles’ in August 2019, her son managed to get out the school by himself twice. She says he was once found swinging dangerously over a banister up a flight of stairs in the school, which she said should have had a safety gate blocking it.
Following inappropriate behaviour she claims he wasn’t allowed to go to the sensory room, a facility opened in the school’s language and communication unit (LCU) after £24,000 was raised.
“That seemed so wrong to me because the purpose of that room is to help children de-escalatate,” said Elliot. “It’s not a reward or a punishment.
“Meanwhile when I went to get him the teacher would report that he had spent 20 minutes under the table, pulling his hair and sucking his finger. That’s what he does when he’s in distress. He’s been completely bald twice since starting at school.”
Last September he was found alone in the street by another parent, having got out of school. Her partner phoned to be told the school couldn’t keep him safe.
His parents kept him off for over a week, during which time a high handle was fitted to his classroom door. But others were not adjusted, allowing him to get out of other exits, straight on to the road.
“He would also regularly come home having soiled himself and we were told that they couldn’t help him at school,” she said. “My feeling was if that’s the case it shows that mainstream is not the right place for him.” She claims her calls for him to be moved to a school for additional support needs went unheeded.
Then on 8 March she received a call about an incident in the playground, which led to Archie shouting at the head teacher.
She picked up her distressed son who later claimed he shouted after being shut in a small changing room, which he described as “a gym closet”. In a voice recording heard by The Ferret he says the door was held closed and he was watched him through a window in the door.
Shocked and upset, Elliott decided to withdraw him from the school and made a complaint to Police Scotland.
Another parent also submitted a police complaint. Barbara Jones claims her nine-year-old son, who has suspected ASD and behavioural problems, was shut in the same changing room multiple times, using restraint.
After investigating, Police Scotland said it had not established a criminal act and confirmed it would be “liaising with partner agencies in relation to this matter”.
Jones said her son has not been put in seclusion since, but instead is given an ipad or similar to help him calm down. “The school is not coping with him,” she said. “And his anxiety is through the roof.”
Meanwhile Elliott has been offered a place at a school for children with additional needs, to start in August, by which time her son will have missed more than three months of education.
“I now have a six-year-old who says he hates his life,” she said. “He’s so anxious I can’t shut his bedroom door at night.”
Another mother – who asked to be referred to as Elaine – said she had also withdrawn her six-year-old son, diagnosed with ASD, from the school.
Before he started last August she repeatedly raised concerns her son was a flight risk.
She later discovered he had exited a school door leading onto a pavement on his first day. He repeated this on the second day and again in September, at which point she took him out of school due to safety concerns.
He returned after a padlock was fitted to a gate. But he got out again in early March this year. Elaine said he missed his classroom assistant who was off sick and didn’t like his new one.
“On 10 March I was on the phone and my mum kept trying to get through. When I phoned her back I could hear my wee boy in the background. I just broke down.
“He had got out of school and turned up at her door. It’s only a few minutes away but he had to cross two roads and he has no road sense at all.”
She claims to have received confusing and contradictory reports of what had occurred from both the school and local authority, and felt her complaints were not taken seriously.
“As my dad later said in a letter to the local authority, are they waiting for a fatality before they take action to keep the children with additional needs there safe?”
She has refused to send her child back to the school but has not found another willing to take him.
Elaine added: “I have no problems with the school educationally and there are many positives. In many ways I’m gutted to be raising these concerns.
“But my son deserves an education and he deserves to be cared for, kept safe and treated properly. This problem is being replicated in so many schools and to me the issue is that they have defunded the learning and communication rooms (LCRs) and not put the resources in place for children like mine.”
A fourth parent, who did not want to be named, said she had withdrawn her child with additional needs from St Charles’. She also alleged he was shut in other spaces within the school and managed to leave the premises unchallenged multiple times.
She added: “When it gets to the point where you are feeling sick every time you take your child to school – where he should be cared for – it’s really not right.”
Concerns were also raised in 2017 when the language unit was integrated into the school. At the time two parents said that meant their children were “forced towards mainstream education”.
Rights of the child
Nick Hobbs, head of advice and investigations at the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, said: “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that discipline in schools must take place in a way that’s consistent with a child’s dignity and human rights. Shutting a child somewhere alone and not allowing them to leave fails that test.
“Schools should be places of safety for children, where their rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. All children have the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right not to be deprived of their liberty.”
Children should be helped to calm down in a space they can also leave, he said. “It’s vital that local authorities take concerns about unlawful restraint and seclusion seriously and investigate them to the fullest extent necessary.”
Alex Orr, a spokesperson for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition – an alliance of organisations campaigning to improve services for vulnerable children and young people – said the accusations raised child protection issues.
“It is unlawful to lock children in rooms and is likely to cause long-term trauma,” he said. “Although difficult to know, this may be a situation where the school is overwhelmed and resorting to inappropriate interventions to manage situations.”
He said the impact on families who failed to get adequate help was “devastating”, adding the situation facing two families whose children are now out of education was “shocking but not uncommon”.
The number of children with additional support needs is rising. According to the Scottish Government pupil census, the number of pupils in Glasgow primary schools with additional support needs (ASN) has increased from 10,736 in 2012 to 12,170 in 2020 while spending per pupil has reduced.
Jennifer Barr, a senior solicitor specialising in educational law at Govan Law Centre, said: “It seems like there might be some sort of institutional problem at this school by the fact that there is a cluster of cases.”
Where behaviour management techniques were used only on children with additional needs or disabilities they “could be shown to be discriminatory”, she added.
A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: “These allegations have been fully investigated and in some instances by the police and social work and they are simply not true.
“The school has been found to follow all the correct procedures in relation to dealing with physical intervention when the main aim is to calm a distressed child and to keep them safe.
“We would urge parents to speak to the school to resolve any issues they feel that they have as the most important thing is to create a nurturing environment that helps every child in the school.”
This story was co-published in partnership with the Herald.
Images thanks to Colin Mearns for Newsquest.