“Isolation” Rooms. An explainer for parents.

  • calm

Isolation rooms and booths have been in the press a lot recently. The coverage has been very disturbing –  pupils placed in solitary confinement for months at a time for forgetting pencils and pens, SEND needs ignored, shouting and screaming, deteriorating mental health and suicide attempts.

If I read this and had not worked in many schools, as a parent I would be terrified.

But there is no need for panic.

I am a Secondary School Deputy Headteacher. Over the past fifteen or so years I have worked in six English secondary schools and know many others well through my work in a previous job as a teacher trainer, and my current role as part of the senior leadership team of four schools in a MAT.

I am writing this blog post to explain my experiences of so called ‘Isolation Rooms’ and ‘Isolation Booths’ and typical practice around them. I am going to outline five myths and what the truth, in all contexts I’ve worked in actually looks like.

Myth 1: Pupils are placed in isolation, which is the same as solitary confinement

For reasons I do not understand ‘isolation’ has become a common term for the room pupils are sent to if they misbehave in a lesson and by so doing disrupt the learning of their classmates. Many, if not most, secondary schools have one of these. In every place I have ever worked or know about ‘isolation’ is a misnomer because to leave children unsupervised in a school would be a breach of safeguarding procedures.

Isolation in school is not the same as solitary confinement.

Children removed to what are more accurately described as “removal” or “behaviour” rooms will usually find themselves in a quiet classroom supervised by SLT or someone from the pastoral team.  Often pupils removed from other lessons taking place at the same time will also be in the same room. Work linked to the curriculum is provided and children will get help if they need it.

Myth 2: Pupils are removed from lessons for minor infringements.

Some stories in the media imply that children are removed from lessons for things as trivial as chewing gum, asking questions or forgetting equipment.

I have never worked anywhere this happens.

When children are removed from lesson it is almost invariably for being very rude, disrespectful or inappropriate, or for repeatedly behaving in way that distracts the teacher or class. Of course, this is not always what children will say and they can be impressively good at implying the reason they were removed was an unreasonable one! For example, a child may say they were removed for asking a question when in reality this was because they were repeatedly shouting out during a tricky explanation.

This is absolutely not to say that children are automatically disbelieved.

If a credible allegation of bad practice or worse is made by a child (this often happens in writing in the removal room) then it is thoroughly investigated. Having conducted many of these investigations, which may involve interviews with other pupils or even the checking of CCTV in serious cases, I can report in most cases the allegation is unfounded and sometimes even vexatious. While this is very frustrating and upsetting for teachers involved it does not mean a school would ever stop doing these investigations. To do so would be a safeguarding failure.

My experience of schools that do not have removal rooms is that learning in lessons is significantly disrupted by poor behaviour, and in some cases classrooms can become unsafe as, without clear boundaries, children behave with impunity.

Myth 3: Pupils spend very long periods in isolation rooms.

Some recent stories about ‘isolation’ rooms imply that some pupils spend months on end in them. Again, I have never worked anywhere this happens, and nor have I ever heard any credible reports of this happening anywhere else. This is not to say it never happens anywhere and any parent in possession of solid information this is happening should immediately go to the school’s governing body.

In all the schools I am familiar with, pupils typically spend no more than a lesson or two in removal rooms. On infrequent occasions they may spend longer in a removal room if they are part of an investigation of an incident that makes it inappropriate for them to be in lessons, or if there is a safeguarding reason they cannot be in the same room as someone they are usually scheduled to be with until more permanent arrangements are made.

Myth 4: Isolation booths are torture and damage mental health.

An ongoing campaign called “Ban the Booths” is arguing for the removal of so called “deep confinement booths” from schools. The campaign itself suffers from a lack of clarity as to what exactly fits their definition of a booth, and what exactly it is they want to ban. It has picked up little public support so far.

What everyone, both those in the campaign and those opposed to it, agree on is that placing pupils in solitary confinement for long periods against the will of a child and without supporting them is entirely unacceptable and immoral. If this happens – and again I have never heard of this happening anywhere – it should be reported to a school’s governing body immediately.

Much more common is that the removal room may have a range of styles of seating, and this may include library style booths or desk dividers. These are preferred by some pupils, while some may need them to avoid being distracted by others in the room. It is worth noting here this is done with the pupils implicit consent – schools are not prisons and a pupil who wishes to leave the room at any point may do so, although of course doing this without the permission of the supervisory staff would result in a further consequence.

This is also a good point to emphasise that schools run on the overall consent of their pupils, and this is based on a perception of basic fairness. While pupils may not always agree a school has been fair on every incidence, if rules are perceived by pupils as being unreasonable order soon breaks down.

Myth 5: Schools ignore mental health needs and SEND when placing pupils in isolation rooms.

A common allegation made in the press about removal and behaviour rooms is that the pupils who are sent to them are more likely to have poor mental health or SEND needs than those who do not, and that these needs are routinely ignored.

There is one truth in this allegation. Some pupils with poor mental health and some of those with SEND do struggle to behave well and may be more likely to be removed from lessons than those without the same needs.

While this may be true, it is entirely untrue to claim that these pupils do not get support if they are removed. In my experience removal rooms are often the place in which they receive the most support, be it mentoring, informal counselling, coaching or sometimes even a drink and a biscuit! For some pupils, a SEND diagnosis may mean the removal room is deemed inappropriate and alternative destinations for these pupils will be found, often with particular members of staff known to have a good relationship with the child.

For pupils with anger management issues the removal room is often the best place for them to calm down, with them likely to become angrier unless removed from the context in which they originally lost their temper.

So why all the confusion?

My hunch is that some of the confusion is convenient.

There exists a vocal group of consultants, educationalists and teachers who believe philosophically that the punishment/reward model of behaviour management (also known as behaviourism), is flawed.

While I disagree with them I accept their beliefs to be genuinely held.

A problem for those that believe this are out-of-step with most of the rest of us, who do believe punishments as a deterrent have a role to play in bringing up young people. This means that reports reflecting typical practice involving booths and removal rooms would be unlikely to get much attention, and any attention they did get would be largely approving. This has led to very misleading articles, with journalists and others encouraged to actively seek out disgruntled parents to write pieces supporting the ideological beliefs of those opposed to punishment in of itself.

This does not mean they are definitely wrong and the rest of us are definitely right, and they are entitled to make their case. That said, it is unfortunate that one of the ways in which some seem to be trying to gain support is by exaggerating what is really going on in order to make cruel treatment of pupils by schools appear commonplace.

Perhaps in some places awful things are happening, and if they are they must be dealt with, but I am certain the majority of parents have little to fear.

My advice to you, or any parents concerned that their child may become exposed to degrading treatment is first speak to the school. Ask them about their removal policies and ask to see the removal room if you are worried about it. In all likelihood you will hear and see nothing that will alarm you.

Any school that refuses to engage with you, whether or not they are behaving unethically, is probably a school you wouldn’t want your child to be at anyway.


One in ten thousand

lottery ticket

The other day someone asked me about how rare Williams’ Syndrome is and I replied with something marvellous and unplanned. “It’s rare,” I said. “It’s about one in ten thousand. We were really lucky!”

It must have been right at the front of my subconscious. As I said it I felt a rush of joy I really don’t have words for. And then more complicated emotions as I thought about all that’s gone well over this year to get me to this point.

I prayed very hard for this. Never for Bessie to be different – not once – but a lot for good health, and the strength to see any challenges brought by her condition a lens onto a different way of seeing the world and not a burden.

I got it all.

Bessie is an active, healthy, loving and remarkably popular young lady who charms all she meets. I am besotted by her. Everyone is besotted by her.

Thank you, God, for answering my prayers so completely.

It is time to stop writing about Bessie, at least for a while. Things are different. Everything is going wonderfully. Bessie is a big sister, and now she is no longer a baby she is entitled to grow up without her every move analysed by me and shared with the world. I’ve also become a bit worried that thinking too much about her condition might cloud my ability to get to know her just as she is.

But before I sign out, at least for now, of my ‘other sort of blog,’ I need to say thank you. In the early days, the hospital days, the paediatrician days, the tube fed days, the sharp newness of everything felt strange and unfamiliar. I was a bit lost. A ship in the dark looking hard into the night for stars to navigate by.

And a lot of you, those reading this, were stars. The retweets; the supportive comments; the DMs; the connections to others on journeys similar to mine; the way you made it so easy for me to walk tall and to be proud. Online and offline, for the grace, the beauty and all the love, thank you. You know who you are.

This is not of course to say I think things will be easy forever now and that there are no hard days ahead. And if there are and I think I need to do it, I won’t rule out writing again.

But I am not afraid.

What parent in the world can say their child’s future won’t have tears in it? And how foolish and pointless would it be to allow fear of the dark to spoil days in the light?

So as this year draws towards its close, perhaps the best year of my life, I finish with just this. Us. A family of four at Christmas, two adults, two children, and four hearts full of hope. An image that two years ago seemed infinitely far away.

There are miracles everywhere if you know what to look for.

Happy Christmas everyone.


The warm in the strict

barber handshake

At TNA we are a warm/strict school.

If you have heard of warm/strict you are likely to have opinions about us already. Whatever your views, please indulge me and read on anyway.

For us it means strict rules and clearly enforced consequences, accompanied with warm human interaction and beautiful manners from everyone in the building. The message we are trying to communicate to our pupils is that we have strict rules because we care about things being fair and want their attention on their learning.

For some of our pupils our rationale doesn’t need any explaining at all. They understand that for things to be orderly anywhere rules are necessary. This is often, although not always, because they have well-structured home lives and positive experiences of calm, predictable routines such as regular meal and bed times. These pupils intuitively understand that there are reasons for our procedures and on the rare occasion they do get caught doing something wrong they accept their punishment with the same grudging acceptance you or I might accept a speeding fine.

For others things are not so comfortable.

Pupils with little experience of positive experiences involving rules and order often find it hard to understand why they can’t do what they want, or why they must accept a punishment. When they are given a punishment they often feel this is evidence the school does not like them and so react defensively and angrily making the situation worse.

This is not because they are either wicked or stupid. It is because it is hard to understand why you should do what you are told by someone you don’t think likes you, if you haven’t much experience of being told what to do by someone who does like you.

This can create a vicious cycle in which pupils behave badly, are punished, think they are being punished because they are disliked and so behave even worse. This impasse is hard to break, but it is vital we do. Before we can get pupils to a point where they make choices we want them to we must first convince them they are liked, and this can be really challenging if they have to be reprimanded regularly.

We should never ignore poor behaviour, which means we must find other ways in which to demonstrate that we like, care for, respect and even love the young people in our care.

We have to be warmest to the pupils who need the most warmth.

At TNA what this looks like varies from pupil to pupil. For some it means an extra-large smile and a handshake as they come through the doors on Monday morning. For others it means asking after an older sibling who’s gone on to college or the army.

Once you have your eye in for this sort of thing you see it going on everywhere. It’s why Mr Brown is sidling crabstep next to a boy on the way to his lesson and talking about Newcastle United. It’s why, in detention Miss Blackburn is admiring Kara’s pencil case. It’s why Miss Barnes is walking a girl around the trees at the back of the school at break time, and it’s why I’m letting Jonny shout “next three, please!” at the dinner queue for me.

We don’t do these things because we are sinister and Machiavellian, and just want more pupils doing their detentions with less fuss. We do them because we genuinely do like the children at our school and we want them to know it. We do them because we understand being warm and kind makes it easier to understand why we sometimes make children do things they don’t want to.



Mission to the Moon

The Cold Moon Rises Over Cornwall

I have written before about my belief that the expansion of SLTs during the New Labour years, declining real wages, retention difficulties and the consequent normalisation of early promotion has hollowed out so called ‘middle’ leadership.

This weakening of subject leadership (a much better term than ‘middle leadership’), accompanied by England’s startlingly young teacher demographic has created a top-heavy management structure in which many decisions are taken by those at the top of the hierarchy.

Probably too many decisions.

On my drive to work I’ve been listening to the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is about Apollo 11: the mission on which humans walked on another world for the first time.

Two things are very striking. The first is just how young Mission Control was. The average age of the team that put humans on the moon and brought them back safely was 27. The second is how much responsibility these self-described kids, were given. During the thirteen minute long descent of the Lunar Lander, a 26-year-old recalls having to make a split-second decision on whether to ignore a computer warning or not – at that moment he had the power to abort a mission that had cost billions and billions of dollars and may well have resulted in NASA missing the target set by JFK to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He chose to proceed with the mission and he was right to.

And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision. 26 or not, he was the right person to decide because he was the person closest to the problem. It was his system. He owned it. He knew it best.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as this. The young man wasn’t plucked off the street, thrust a headset and then told ‘go on, decide, yes or no?’ He was clever, he was knowledgeable and he was well trained. He knew exactly what he was doing and NASA’s policy to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level was a deliberate and wise one.

Devolving decision making to the lowest possible level can work very well because it is sensible to give as much autonomy as you can to those actually wrestling with the problem. When this doesn’t happen those further up in the hierarchy need to know the jobs of everyone below them better than those doing them do.

This might work in very linear simple workplaces but at NASA, or in a school, this just won’t do.

In schools where subject specific leaders and teachers are not allowed to make decisions far too much ends up on the desks of senior leaders, who then become so befuddled and makework busy that strategic decision making feels impossible. Systemically we have accepted a degree of centralised command quite remarkably top heavy compared with other sectors. Non-teaching friends of mine are staggered by how little voice subject leaders can have over things as minor as set-changes and as important as recruitment. This is distinctly odd, and actually quite unfair given how accountable they are for what happens in their departments.

Top down decision making can also make for terrible, blunderbuss policy blasts such “everything must be marked every two lessons”, or “all pupils must do twenty minutes of silent reading in every lesson”, which then causes everyone’s workload to spiral as byzantine mechanisms are put in place to ensure compliance.

Blunt top-down policy making is also a sedative. When common sense is outsourced people stop thinking and can become dependent on edicts irrespective of how dumb these are. This can make it appear as if they aren’t capable of independent thought and increases top-down tinkering.

This is not to say every teacher should be left to do whatever they think best in a classroom. Different levels of skill, training and experience, and the usefulness of some basic commonalities such as entry and exit routines means it can never be quite as simple. We need to train our new teachers and new leaders well.

But ultimately the aim of senior leadership should be to free their teachers to solve the specific problems they are facing every day, not to quixotically try to solve all these problems for them.

It is an approach that works. It is the approach that got us to the moon.


Is homework worth the pain?

Early today, @positivteacha sent this tweet.

Amen! Who of us could honestly say we haven’t felt like this?

Homework is a pain. It’s difficult to set, fiddly to track and it increases workload for teachers. If pupils aren’t well behaved in lessons worrying about how hard they are working outside them is a waste of time.

We could go further. There is a line of argument that goes we shouldn’t set homework at all, as doing so is an intrusion on valuable family time, especially for those who work long hours.

Perhaps we should just scrap it.

Except that if we did it is our most disadvantaged young people who would lose out.

If schools stopped setting homework the most privileged of our young people would continue to do it because their parents, understanding the competitive nature of schooling, would insist. Even if privileged parents, perhaps out of a sense of astonishing altruism, agreed not to set their children homework then they would still be providing their own offspring with a wider range of learning experiences than many poorer parents would be able to do. The net result of not setting homework would be a widening – as it if weren’t wide enough already – achievement gap between rich and poor.

So I while I absolutely agree homework is a pain in the backside I don’t think we can stop setting it.

At the Nuneaton Academy we have thought hard about how best to square this circle, and I’d like to use the rest of this post to explain the principles we use to set and track homework.

Principle 1: Homework must be efficient and useful

We absolutely insist that homework teachers set is tangibly useful to pupils and their parents. If it is impossible to see how the work helps the child improve then we open ourselves to accusations it is pointless and being set for the sake of it. We do not set cereal box projects or art work for subjects which are not art.

Our teachers set the quickest and least fussy methods to get the job done, and understand short and regular is much better than long involved pieces that are only irregularly set and very often left to the last minute.

Family time is precious, especially for parents working long hours, and we understand any intrusion into it must be worth the pain.

Principle 2: Homework must be clear and doable.

Vague homework is a big cause of pre-bedtime stress and tears. We do not set homework that involves googling or researching things and we do not set homework that assumes there is a knowledgeable adult there to help. We also insist pupils have the resources they need to do the work they are asked to, be this a revision guide, booklet or knowledge organiser. For us homework is often to self-quiz before a test, or to complete an extended piece of writing based on guidance in a booklet. We also love setting practise as homework, which might be work on multiplication or freehand sketching. All our homework is set on a great app called MILK, which means parents as well as pupils can see what has been set.

Principle 3: Centralise tracking

Perhaps the most significant reason systems in schools collapse is the burden of maintenance becomes so great teachers stop using them. This is as true of homework as it is of behaviour. If teachers have to ring home for all homework not completed, or even worse set detentions they have to personally run, then pretty soon teachers will stop recording when it isn’t done and eventually they may stop setting it at all.

At TNA tracking of homework is centralised. All teachers have to do is right click on the pupils’ name on SIMS and select a ‘no homework’ option from a drop down box. There work is then done.

Once a fortnight we the run a report on a specific year group. The parents of any child with more than one ‘no homework’ gets a letter and a text message informing them, and asking for their support in making sure this doesn’t happen again. The letter also invites parents to let us know if there are reasons it is hard for their child to do work at home and making it clear we will work with them to sort the issues where we can – in the past this has meant space in the library after school, and signing out of laptops for those who need them.

If pupils continue to leave homework undone despite parents being written to then we may call home or invite parents in for a meeting. We have not chosen to sanction non completion of homework with detentions so far – this is because in the past I’ve found this usually creates brand new problems, including copying of each other and rushed huddles of children scrawling on paper in the corridor before and between lessons to avoid a punishment, which defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Finally we talk constantly about why homework is so important. We run assemblies on it. We ask pupils every morning what they’ve done as they come in and we ask them what they’ll do every day as they walk out. We tell them their homework should be useful and if they don’t think a task has been useful we ask them to tell us why.

Homework isn’t a lot of fun. We know it can be hard to get done.

We also love our children enough to feel – done properly – it is worth the pain.



Dual coding – part of the answer but not all of the answer

Earlier today, @kenradical sent this tweet, expressing concern that if we exclusively use simple diagrams and icons when dual coding we might miss opportunities to use rich imagery to make content memorable.

While there is room for both simple and rich imagery in history lessons, I think Rich wise to strike a cautionary note. From growth mind-set and flipped learning, to PEE paragraphs and target grades, English education is full of examples of ideas that have been bastardised and misapplied.

To head this off it might be instructive to remind ourselves just how much beautiful illuminated manuscripts, coded portraits and iconic posters bring to history lessons;

Rich imagery brings a sense of period and immediacy. While the Venetian Ambassador’s famous descriptions of Henry are compelling and revealing, they can never have quite the impact of Hans Holbein’s 1536 lost “Portrait of Henry VIII”, in which we see him at his most cocksure, commanding and imperious.


Of course, key components of the portrait could be reduced to simpler drawings – for example a piece of jewellery to represent wealth – but this would be a poor substitution, robbing pupils of the impact of the brash, ostentatious and grotesque whole. History teachers should be respectful of this power, ensuring children do not mistake the faded, small versions of such work in their textbooks or booklets for the real thing. Nothing beats darkening a room, commanding the attention of the class and then announcing, “this, ladies and gentlemen, is Henry VIII the way he would want you to see him”, then projecting a full-size, high resolution version.

Similarly, it is difficult to think of a better way of conveying the folksy, whimsical and sinister nature of Nazi values and beliefs than the propaganda posters, which remain as disturbing as they ever were more than sixty years after they were first printed.


Rich imagery is an important part of the history teacher’s palate, and to neglect it is to rob the past of vibrancy.

It is also worth considering how skilled history teachers have used imagery as mnemonics for years. As an example, let’s consider perhaps the most famous royal portrait of them all; George Gower’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.


This painting, as all children should know, drips meaning: Elizabeth sits centrally in a position which projects power and authority. Her dress shows her wealth. The background shows the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth’s back is towards darkness and a mermaid which may represent the now executed Mary Queen of Scots, suggesting Elizabeth’s troubles are behind her. In the light her hand sits on a globe, showing England’s dominance of the seas, and her fingers touching America show the beginning of imperial ambition.

It is a Knowledge Organiser isn’t it? A beautiful one. And the history community has been using beautiful knowledge organisers like this for years.

This is not to say there is no place for the sort of simple, elegant pictography @olicav is such a master of. Indeed we are enriched by it- for examples of just how much it can add to history teaching have a look at the Knowledge Organisers being produced by @MissSayers1.

But they cannot and should not take the place of beautiful imagery. Let’s remember and be proud of what we have always done as a discipline. Let’s be careful. Let’s avoid turning helpful work on dual-coding into another wave of harmful genericism by remembering not everything is suitable for every purpose.




Williams Syndrome is joyously puzzling.

Those with the Syndrome, caused by a microdeletion of between 26 and 28 genes on  Chromosome 7, have a strikingly asymmetrical intellectual profile. While musicality is often enhanced and speech and language are comparatively strong, mathematical and spatial ability are profoundly impaired.

You can see it in this Oliver Sacks documentary, in which a charismatic, articulate child with Williams’ Syndrome with many gifts is completely stumped by a fairly simple mechanical puzzle.

My daughter has Williams Syndrome and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m very comfortable with my daughter being better at some things than others.

It doesn’t bother Robert Plomin either. This recent TES article suggests he’d go further and tailor school curriculum to the individual genetic profiles of children.

This seems like a good idea. Why insist my daughter do loads of maths or Resistant Materials if it is clear she has no aptitude in these areas? Why insist a child with a small working memory struggle through vast tracts of things he will never be able to write essays about? Wouldn’t it both more pragmatic and kinder to tailor a curriculum to the inherent abilities of those who study it?

But Bessie loves doing puzzles.

She has a favourite. It has twelve pieces and has a crocodile on it. It comes in a wooden frame. When she wants to do it she carries it to me shouting “PUZ-AL! PUZ-AL!” She likes to empty the pieces on the coffee table she calls “DA PUZ-AL TABLE.”

Of course, whether it is because she has Williams Syndrome or whether it is because she is a toddler, she is no good at it. Not at all! I have to put the pieces in the right place for her.

But Bessie doesn’t care she isn’t good at jigsaws. She likes to press those pieces down anyway. She likes me to tell her what is on each piece and she likes the moment the little pieces suddenly emerge into one picture and she can announce “Ooooh! Crod-o-dile!”

It would be awful if we stopped because she isn’t good at them. Bessie’s entitlement to jigsaw puzzles is predicated on her entitlement to enjoy them as a little girl, not on how good or bad she is at putting them together.

This is what the argument for the genetic personalisation of education, at least in the way I have interpreted it, fails to understand.

And it is a catastrophic misunderstanding.

What is on our curriculum is not the reserve of those with the natural ability to ably perform tasks based on it. It is a human inheritance. Homer’s epics and the work of Maya Angelou belong to everyone, from the illiterate who are read their works aloud to those who will study PhDs on them. If we were to turn our backs on this principle where would we end up? Would we stop the genetically poorly co-ordinated from playing football in a Sunday League team? If we discovered certain genetic combinations typically correlated with a lack of appreciation for modern art would we remove this from the curriculum for these people?

We would not. Because to do so would be to end up with the most reductive curriculum it is possible to envisage – one in which we cage our destinies in a double-helix.