The Department for Education document entitled “Use of Reasonable Force – updated advice for head teachers, staff and governing bodies” isn’t a new thing. Variations of it have been around for some time now and I have yet to meet two organisations who interpret it in the same way.
Tonight I want to invite you to join me on a journey and using the principleground rules from the 1999 (make you feel old?) film “Fight Club”, to examine further some of the challenges staff may face when dealing specifically withmanaging children fighting.
#1 The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.
The DfE guidance document addresses issues surrounding the use of force without discussing them in detail. The document highlights that staff are allowed to use force to:
“prevent a pupil from attacking a member of staff or another pupil, or to stop a fight in the playground”
This artfully vague statement gives the nod to staff having the power to“stop” fights, it doesn’t then give any further detail on the matter.
In one of my earlier posts I discussed duty of care and keeping yourself safe whilst weighing up the duty owed to those in your care, the guidance explains this as:
“The decision on whether or not to physically intervene is down to the professional judgement of the staff member concerned and should always depend on the individual circumstances.”
Reasonable force is something we have discussed in detail before, staff must ensure that any actions they take are reasonable in the circumstances. Meaning, should they be intervening in the first place? Could the circumstances have been avoided?
#2 Second rule: DO NOT talk about Fight Club
So important was its secrecy to the integrity of the club, it was listed twice. So lets look at a different angle. Don’t talk about it? The guidance skirts around questions such as: At what point do we stop the fight? With how many members of staff? What determines a fight? Play-fights also? Verbal warning first? Using which holds?
Staff are told to use their professional judgement, without the necessary information, instruction, training & supervision that decision may not necessarily be in the best interests of the child. So perhaps we should talk about it, I always ask when delivering training if anyone has had to break up a fight before, and if the person is comfortable enough, I get them to discuss the circumstances. Without fail, the person describing their experience always animates their disclosure using hand gestures, often which resemble a person swimming or attempting to swim.
In the heat of the moment where a fight breaks out next to them or they round a corner and a member of staff is confronted with an advancing pupil, then the immediate physical reaction to separate or “hold back” an individual can often be instinctive. Pushing, pulling, stopping a child running in a corridor, catching a chair from tipping back or even turning a pupil by their shoulders and diverting them away from a confrontation all involve gross motor skills. Separating two parties is often a more preferable approach than wading in with some kind of fine or moderate motor skill based single person restrictive hold, which aside from having manual handling and personal safety implications, may result in more serious repercussions to explain.
Imagine sitting with Mum, explaining how you held her dearest Tyler whilst the other child hit him as hard as he could in his ear, with the “free shot” you granted his aggressor. Might not be your finest hour at this year’s parents evening
#3 Third rule: If someone says “stop” or goes limp, taps out the fight is over
Now, one thing I have observed about the majority of young children and fighting is; they aren’t very good at it.
Proportionately (which if we do need to intervene is exactly how we should be thinking) it may not be the best idea to wade in and try to stop the fight physically. Take me for example, I am 6ft 3, 17 stone and have hands well, to give a clue to a nickname I once had “like shovels”. If two small children were fighting and I grabbed them and dragged them backwards separating them – I guarantee I would cause more harm to both of those children than if I had just let them carry on fighting!
I’m not saying that I would stand and watch, The point here is just because you have a power to do something does not mean you must use it, your duty of care both to yourself and the children is absolute.
#4 Fourth rule: One fight at a time
Admittedly, sometimes there’s a lot of effort, a lot of shirt pulling, spinning round and grabbing but generally there is usually one party (or both) that have entered into this bout of fisticuffs fairly reluctantly. I’m not suggesting we just stand and watch or take a sweep-stake perhaps. If there is time to look at a less intrusive method, which is likely to work, resulting in a lesser harm occurring then surely where it isn’t necessary to use force, we shouldn’t? The very presence of an adult can sometimes be enough, or a clear confident and audible command could stop children in their tracks or even less than that? I mean, ask yourself why the children are fighting?
Not why they have started fighting, now that could be a variety of things, from misappropriated Match Attaxx cards in a primary school setting to a negligent“Like” on Facebook in secondary. No, why are they continuing to fight? In the film, one fight at a time meant having an audience – it may be more appropriate (and far more effective) in some circumstances to evict the crowd chanting“Fight, fight, fight!” before you consider physically intervening. Once the eyes are away from them, the fight in the duo often fizzles out.
Then sanctions against those encouraging the fighting could be a good way of instigating a cultural shift in your establishment, condemning fights as a spectator sport to being a thing of the past.
#5 Fifth rule: No shirts, no shoes
As specific as the character in the film Tyler Durden was on fightwear, the guidance put out there by the government is specific in the detail of the fight’s location. Why a playground was my initial reaction? Don’t fights occur in other areas? Is there a difference that we need to be made aware of? Is it only “a fight” if it takes place on the ground area allocated for children to play? Location may affect your assessment of the situation but other than that plays no significant part in lawfully intervening.
Escorting a child from one side of a school to the other for example – legally is there a power to do so? Yes, absolutely the power exists. I have previously written posts explaining the legalities of restriction of liberty and the use of time out rooms, practically though is it always the best option to attempt, with their resistance to get them there? Police stations, prisons and hospitals are all ergonomically designed to allow staff to easily escort people who don’t want to be moved from one place to another. Think about it, wide corridors, ramps, laminated wall displays instead of pictures and ornaments, doors that open electronically or both ways and what is on the floors? Nothing. What happens to said floors in the evening? The floors are cleaned and buffed, partly for hygiene but it is easier to move those resisting than if they had the purchase of carpet beneath their feet.
Classrooms? Rows of chairs housing other children. Corridors? narrow, with amazing wall displays, doors that open inwards with fiddly handles and stairs. Yes stairs – I have a talent of falling UP stairs when I am at home, happy and calm. What then are my chances of successfully managing a challenging student and collaborating the movements of another colleague DOWN a flight of stairs when I am in a state of high emotional arousal? That risk assessment is not even worth attempting.
So as with any manual handling activity we must ask – do we need to move the object (child) in the first place? What is so urgent that we must immediately move the child?
#6 Sixth rule: Only two guys to a fight fellas
Do numbers matter? Numbers of staff? Number of people fighting? Well let us look at other activities, take moving a box for example. Your employer asks you to take a box down a flight of stairs, you survey it and on testing its weight find the object to be far heavier than you feel you could safely lift.
So, having been asked you lift it anyway and carry it through a classroom, stumbling due to its weight or shape. Subsequently, you and the pupil who broke your fall are now injured.
Would the staff member concerned be apportioned some of the blame? Yes of course the employer would have to by law produce a risk assessment for this activity but should the staff member themselves not have raised the fact that this assigned work activity was outside of their range of capabilities?
#7 Seventh rule: Fights will go on as long as they have to
The key is to stop incidents, but only when safe. If we look at two teenagers or even year 6 pupils in a primary school settings and make a bit of a threat assessment. Are the fighters big? Strong? Quick? Are they more able than ourselves? Or to rephrase, do we think that we actually could control them? Could we physically over power them to make them stop fighting? Is the likelihood of us succeeding in stopping the fight alone outweighed by these factors?
Removing classes of students using strategies to win time to call for help through containing pupils, moving objects and potential weapons out of reach, reminding pupils that the police are on their way are sometimes better alternatives than exercising your power to intervene, getting injured and failing in your duty of care.
#8 The eighth: and final rule…
Thanks for taking the time to read this post, I hope it has been helpful if the links a little tenuous at times. Even if you aren’t a teacher, or you don’t work in schools, I’m sure you can see how this conveys to other settings and promotes an overall compliance with the human rights act. Ideally if we can isolate the triggers and target low level behaviours looking at sanctions & rewards rather than threats, we can minimise the residual risks of fights ever happening in the first place.
So, are you ready? Oh didn’t I say? As this is your first night at fight club.