The use of reasonable force

The use of force in restraining or a pupil is a complex issue.

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Since September 1998, all teachers in maintained schools have had clear, statutory authority to use reasonable force to control or restrain pupils.
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Since September 1998, all teachers in maintained schools have had clear, statutory authority to use reasonable force to control or restrain pupils. This authority is contained in the Education Act 1996. 

Other education staff may also use reasonable force in certain circumstances, provided their headteacher has authorised them to have control or charge of pupils. We recommend that support staff members meet with their headteacher to clarify whether they have this authority. If so, the headteacher should confirm this authority in writing, and you should retain the document. 

There is no legal definition of reasonable force. However, the government guidance does provide guidance on what reasonable force means in circular 10/98: Section 550A of the Education Act 1996: The use of force to control or restrain pupils

Key points from the guidance:

  • when it is reasonable to use force, and the degree of force that may reasonably be used, will always depend on the circumstances of each case
  • the use of physical force will only be lawful when warranted by the circumstances of the particular incident
  • the degree of force used must be in proportion to the circumstances of the incident and the seriousness of the behaviour or the consequences it is intended to prevent
  • any force used must be the minimum possible to resolve the situation
  • the age, understanding and sex of the pupil will all be relevant to the degree of force which is acceptable and reasonable
  • the pupil's cultural background and attitude towards physical contact should also be borne in mind.    

The National Assembly in Wales has issued equivalent guidance in circular 37/98, available from the Assembly on tel: 029 2089 8688. 

Policies on restraint 

Circular 10/98 states: "It is important that all schools should have a policy about the use of force to control or restrain pupils." It goes on to advise that: "All members of staff who may have to intervene physically with pupils must clearly understand the strategies and options open to them. They must know what is acceptable and what is not." The extent to which a school policy has been communicated to staff is crucial.

If your school has a policy prohibiting the use of physical force and this has been communicated to you, then you are likely to face a disciplinary process which might result in your dismissal if you act contrary to that policy. However, if your school does allow the use of reasonable force, it is also absolutely essential that you comply not only with the school's policy (which should be properly communicated to you) but also with the Education Act 1996 and circular 10/98 as outlined above. In assessing the reasonableness of your behaviour when applying force, a tribunal will look at this legislation and guidance. 

Situations where reasonable force may be used 

The circular sets out the following categories of situations where the use of reasonable force may be appropriate to control or restrain a pupil. 

  1. Where an action is necessary in self-defence or because there is an imminent risk of injury.
  2. Where there is a developing risk of injury or significant damage to property.
  3. Where a pupil is behaving in a way that is compromising good order and discipline.   

Examples of situations that fall into the first two categories above are: 

  • a pupil who attacks a member of staff or another pupil
  • pupils who are fighting
  • a pupil who is engaged in, or is on the verge of committing, deliberate damage or vandalism to property
  • a pupil who is causing, or at risk of causing, injury or damage by accident, rough play or misuse of dangerous materials or objects
  • a pupil who is running in a corridor or on a stairway in a way which means that he or she might cause an accident likely to result in injury to him or herself or others 
  • a pupil who absconds from a class or tries to leave school (this will only apply if the pupil could be at risk if not kept in a classroom or at school).   

An example of a situation falling under the third category is: 

  • a pupil who persistently refuses to obey an order to leave a classroom
  • a pupil who is behaving in a way that is seriously disrupting a lesson.    

Reasonable force may also be used to prevent pupils from committing a criminal offence but will never be justified to prevent a pupil from committing what is a trivial misdemeanour. 

Forms of physical intervention 
The circular refers to certain forms of reasonable physical intervention such as: 

  • physically interposing between pupils 
  • blocking a pupil's path 
  • holding 
  • pushing 
  • pulling 
  • leading a pupil by the hand or arm 
  • shepherding a pupil away by placing a hand in the centre of the back 
  • in extreme circumstances, using more restrictive holds.    

In addition, the circular recognises that where there is an immediate risk of injury, a member of staff may need, in exceptional circumstances, to take necessary action using reasonable force, eg to stop a pupil running off a pavement onto a busy road or to prevent a pupil hitting someone or throwing something. 

You're advised not to act in a way that might reasonably be expected to cause injury such as by: 

  • holding a pupil around the neck or collar, or in any other way that restricts breathing 
  • slapping, punching or kicking a pupil 
  • twisting or forcing limbs against a joint 
  • tripping up a pupil 
  • holding or pulling a pupil by the hair or ear 
  • holding a pupil face down on the ground.    

Other key points of advice from the circular are that: 

  • staff should always avoid touching or holding a pupil in a way that might be considered indecent
  • where the risk is not urgent, the teacher should consider when, or indeed whether at all, physical intervention is appropriate; teachers should try to deal with a situation by using other strategies before using force
  • all teachers need developed strategies and techniques for dealing with difficult pupils which they should use to defuse and calm a situation
  • in a non-urgent situation, force should only be used when other methods have failed
  • the key issue is to establish good order -- any action which exacerbates the situation needs to be avoided
  • the possible consequences of intervening physically, including the risk of increasing the disruption or actually provoking an attack, need to be carefully evaluated; the pupil's age and level of understanding are also relevant
  • physical intervention with older pupils is likely to be increasingly inappropriate
  • physical intervention should never be used as a substitute for good behavioural management.    

Education staff working with pupils in the special educational needs (SEN) context can face particular challenges in the area of physical restraint. Separate guidance documents have been produced by the DfES on physical intervention with SEN pupils. It is essential that teachers in all settings are fully and properly trained in the powers of staff to restrain pupils as set out in Section 550A of the Education Act 1996, and that training is regularly updated.

Help and support

For further advice on this issue, ATL members can speak to their school rep, their branch secretary or their regional official. They can also call the London (020 7930 6441), Cardiff (029 2046 5000), Belfast (028 9078 2020) or Edinburgh (0131 272 2748) offices or email

For out of hours enquiries, call the out of office hours helpline on 020 7782 1612 (Monday-Friday, 5-8pm during term time).

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