A PRIVATE school for children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and autism has pointed towards its no exclusion policy after concerns were raised over dozens of complaints over the use of restraint on pupils.

Priory Hurworth House School said it had “extremely robust safeguarding protocols”, including around restraint which it only used to keep young people with challenging behaviours from harming themselves, or others, after a Darlington council meeting heard there had been a 25 per cent spike in the number of allegations against staff working with children across the borough in the year to April.

Councillors were told the increase was partly explained by the high number of cases relating to the Hurworth school for up to 67 five to 19-year-olds, accounting for 19 per cent of the total number of allegations. Most of the allegations over the school related to the use of restraint.

The children and young people scrutiny committee meeting heard 34 of the cases at the school involved allegations of physical abuse, accounting for 62 per cent of the referrals from educational settings across the borough within the category of physical abuse.

Officers reported all 34 cases involved allegations of assault or the excessive use of force during physical interventions and restraint. The likely complainants are parents, carers and local authorities.

After the meeting Councillor Jon Clarke, the council’s cabinet member for children and young people, said the council took any allegations that are reported to it very seriously, particularly when vulnerable young people are involved.

He said: “We are working closely with the school in question to examine the use of restraint techniques.”

The council said due to the Data Protection Act and the number of pupils at the school it could not reveal whether any of the children in the council’s care attended the school.

Councillor Cyndi Hughes said as a result of serious questions being raised about the Priory Group’s use of restraint in some of their other settings, members of the committee had sought answers about the situation at Hurworth House and were expecting updates on the outcome of the many complaints made at the school.

Last November, the Priory Group closed the children’s wards at a Norfolk private mental health hospital after staff were found by Care Quality Commission inspectors to have compromised the safety of young patients by using “unapproved” restraint techniques.

Cllr Hughes, the council’s previous children and young people cabinet member, said the sheer number of complaints had sounded alarm bells.

She said: “As an independent school the complaints procedure lies outside the normal, transparent local government ombudsman or Ofsted route. This adds to my concern.”

A spokesman for the school said all incidents were reviewed, and parents kept closely informed, and it referred all incidents, however minor, to the local authority with whom it worked closely and openly.

He said: “The overwhelming majority of allegations are unsubstantiated, or subsequently retracted. In the very small number of cases where they have been partially upheld, we have taken immediate measures.

“At its last full Ofsted inspection, the school was rated ‘good’ overall, with inspectors saying it offered ‘outstanding’ welfare. At a more recent visit in 2019, inspectors praised the school’s ‘effective’ arrangements to keep pupils safe, saying ‘sharp attention to detail in all aspects of the school’s arrangements for promoting … safeguarding ensures these school arrangements are of the highest order’.

“We would add that the school is proud of its no-exclusion policy which, as Ofsted noted, led to a recent rise in behavioural incidents which were being appropriately managed by staff, who received high-quality training.”

The school’s website states it works in partnership with parents, carers and local authorities, demonstrating an open and inclusive approach and inspire children to succeed through education, therapy and positive relationships. It adds: “Our students have failed in, or been failed by, a variety of settings prior to their time at Hurworth House School. They arrive very disengaged with education and life after having experienced many crises and trauma.”