Ban isolation booths? Why the question needs more nuance

Two headteachers explain why the use of isolation is not the binary issue many would like to present

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The #banthebooths campaign has dominated social media discussions for some time now, with the for and against positions being laid out on Tes earlier this week. 

But the reality of the use of isolation as a behaviour management tool is far more nuanced than is being presented, argue two heads. Here is their view: 

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London and is author of Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers 

There has been much talk in teacher circles lately about the use of so-called isolation, with much heat generated at both ends of the acceptability spectrum. 

In my experience it is indeed a commonly used practice in secondary schools – less so in primaries and special schools – but its use varies massively and, I’m willing to bet, its effectiveness varies massively too. 

For me, there are some questions each school must regularly ask themselves about their use of isolation.

What’s the point?

“This is obvious, Jarlath!” 

Not to me, it isn’t. 

It is unarguable that on occasion a child or children cannot remain in a class as their presence is intolerably disruptive or unsafe. Quite clearly we retain a duty of care to that child, just as we do to everyone else in the class, so once they are outside of that class, they must go somewhere and they must be supervised. 

Where they go, with whom and for how long are further questions to answer and point towards what you are trying to achieve with the use of isolation.  

I have two main aims in these situations: to ascertain what has happened and how I/we will deal with it; and to support the child to return to a state where they can return to learning as soon as possible. 

This may take a short time or it may take a while longer. This is a judgement call and may, on occasion, go wrong. We’re not mind-readers, but it won’t take me a week, that’s for sure.

The point shouldn’t be to make the experience so mind-numbingly tedious or so long that the child is bored into behaving better (incredibly unlikely) and it is a concern of mine that this is an explicit aim in some. 

If isolation is an extension of "sit there and think about what you did [for a week]", then I’m confident that it will have a limited, if any, effect.

Indeed, an explicit aim to make isolation “really, really harsh” could entrench resentment and be counter-productive.    

What’s it called?

A minor point, you might say. I don’t think so. When I first worked in a comprehensive in 2001 (apparently before isolation was a thing, but it was endemic even then) we called it the Pupil Removal Facility (PRF). Very clinical and not what I would want to call it, but it did what it said on the tin. Internal inclusion or internal exclusion (oxymorons) or nurture rooms are vain attempts at softening, I fear.

Is this proportional?

As stated earlier, intolerable disruption or safety require immediate attention. No-one disputes that. 

Isolating a child for a prolonged period of time for a haircut or uniform infringement stretches reasonable notions of proportionality. 

We run the risk here of deepening hostility when we could deal with these issues in a different way (note that I didn’t say do nothing in response to these things, just be proportional). 

I recall visiting one child in his secondary in Year 8, prior to him joining the school where I was first a headteacher, because of his behavioural problems, and being told by the Sendco about a five-day referral (their name for isolation) for swearing at a teacher.

The boy just stopped attending after the first two days and there followed a futile game of cat and mouse to ensure the boy did his five days (it took three weeks). 

Swearing at teachers is not acceptable, but as with all behaviour issues, our aim must be to improve the situation, not simply win at all costs. When we get serious about lost learning time due to term-time holidays, for instance, we should reflect on burning learning time in these situations too, for no matter the work provided, it is a poor substitute for being in class. 

Is it right?

Occasionally a justification is made for the use of isolation that it is used as a benevolent alternative to a fixed-term exclusion. This can be problematic as fixed-term exclusion brings with it certain legal responsibilities for schools, and the children and their parents have rights – a child cannot be excluded for more than 45 days in any one academic year, the parents have the right to be informed, and the parents have the right of appeal – none of which apply to isolation. 

In extremis, a child could be in isolation for extended periods that exceed 45 days, or a school could use that if the 45-day limit was reached, as an alternative to external suspension without the knowledge of the parents. 

Is it effective?

Isolation, like all responses to behaviour issues, should not be an end in itself. If we aren’t reviewing its effectiveness, if the same children are appearing in there time and time again, then it is perfectly legitimate to ask why we’re persisting with it as a behaviour improvement strategy. If we don’t know how effective it is, then it isn’t behaviour improvement, it is respite and this is not supportive to neither teachers nor children because the situation that led to isolation in the first place is no less likely to occur again in the future.

Gwennan Harrison-Jones is headteacher of Cams Hill School in Hampshire. She tweets @CamsHillHT

We use isolation, but not with divided booths on the desks, we currently divide between chairs. We do call it isolation and we do have a specific room where this takes place out of main circulation areas. 

It is the size of a small classroom and also has computer work stations. Pupils have their break and lunchtime supervised by a member of staff and at a different time to the rest of the school population. Pupils are able to visit the toilet during these times the same as all other pupils.

Sometimes we use an extended day isolation, early start and late finish, so they have reduced interactions with other pupils during the school day, depending on the severity of the "action" that has caused this "consequence" to be completed. 

Our positive behaviour for learning system is based around "actions and consequences", along with a focus on being ready, respectful and safe.

Our isolation provision is staffed full-time by a member of staff who has undertaken mental health first-aid training. In order to ensure a wider understanding of each pupil who spends time with her, she works closely with, among other people, our inclusion and intervention manager, our assistant headteacher for inclusion, our Sendco, our heads of year, and our non-teaching assistant heads of year.  

She is also a qualified English teacher, so she is able to proactively ensure that learning continues for pupils. Pupils complete work from specific lessons that they would have been in, provided by their teachers.

We believe it is an important part of our actions and consequences system and that it communicates a clear message to our pupils; we are a large school community and part of our role as professionals is in helping our pupils to understand the importance of being respectful, responsible citizens within the school community itself and beyond. 

We provide restorative and reflective opportunities as part of the isolation "consequence" along with personalised support, and we track participants carefully. 

Where pupils have a specific SEND the Sendco is involved before, during and after. We look for patterns and, if any pupils become repeat attendees, we explore the "action" that has needed this "consequence" and see why the previous opportunity appears to have not had an impact. 

A pupil may spend part of a day, a day or, on a very rare occasion, two days in this space.

We believe that the use of this space in our particular context and in the way that we use it works for us. I couldn’t possibly comment about any other school and any other setting…we have continued and will continue to evolve our "actions and consequences" systems using information we gather from other professionals and research-based evidence that may be appropriate for us.

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