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.