Isolation rooms: should they be banned?

The debate over isolation booths in schools has become a fiery one. Few issues in education are as divisive or emotive. Tes has invited one of the founders of the Ban the Booth campaign, Paul Dix, to argue for their removal, and a leading headteacher, Caroline Barlow, to make the case for their use

Tes brings together opposing views on whether schools should use isolation booths to tackle poor behaviour

'This isn’t education; it’s more like a custodial sentence'

Paul Dix

There is good practice in many removal rooms. Adults work calmly with angry and frustrated children who struggle to follow direction. Mentoring and challenge ensures that students are returned to learning as soon as possible.

Then there are removal rooms where children sit in isolation booths abandoned, their education on hold. Often these are not children with the worst behaviour: they are those who irritatingly stretch the lines of tolerance. They stare into space day after day; same faces, same stories, same unmet needs. I once met a child who had spent 35 days in an isolation booth in three months. That isn’t an education; it’s more like a custodial sentence. 

I have seen too much not to speak out; wasted lives, wasted education. We need to ban the isolation booths. Self-electing to sit in a booth in a library is a free choice, but confinement booths are different. There is no dignity for the child.

Punishment booths

Can you really call a school "outstanding" if its behaviour policy is reliant on punishment booths?

When children deliberately and persistently disrupt, they may need to be removed from the lesson. What happens next is critical. In these difficult and distressing moments, the values of your school are tested.

Isolation is an escalation in punishment designed to deter. Forty years ago, these children would have been beaten. Now they sit facing the wall in a booth, not allowed to turn around, speak, look left or right. Of course, this punishment is only truly complete when accompanied with the ubiquitous worksheet or unexplained textbook. In many schools, one lesson of poor behaviour results in the rest of the day isolated. It is a long way away from "last resort": children isolated for the smallest infraction – wrong socks, rolling eyes, tutting or sucking a mint. They are caught in a no man’s land between a silent boothed existence and exclusion.

These are the children who the cuts are hitting hardest. Their support left long ago and is now just a phone that rings endlessly in an empty student services office. 

Punishment can multiply in an isolation room. Extra days given for the smallest infractions. We need to limit punishment in schools to ensure that it does not become disproportionate; to make sure that it is in line with our values, our laws and the rights of the child. Nobody wants to stop heads making decisions about their schools, but it cannot be a free-for-all, otherwise bad practice takes hold. It is right and proper to check ourselves. Isolation booths were invented and replicated without debate or legislation. It isn’t a done deal. It is a choice.

The levers for change are in culture and practice. The skill of the teacher in managing conversations with distressed children; the visible support of leaders; resisting sending children to the highest authority; the confidence of a middle leader to manage the situation without escalating; the resilience of the teacher not to react emotionally; planned processes that are more nurture than nihilism. Schools with challenging intakes have removed the booths, and reduced removal – there is another way.

Isolation should be reported to governors just as we report exclusion and restraint.

Our Ban the Booths campaign demands regulation and reporting so we can see the true picture. How many SEND children are stuck in isolation where nobody’s needs are met? What is the geographical, key stage, ethnic and gender breakdown of those in isolation? How many schools rely too heavily on isolation as a sanction? How many schools are using isolation booths to hide the fact that their behaviour policy isn’t working?

In Scotland, there is a wave of trauma-informed practice; government ministers talk of love and encourage relational practice. In England, we are arguing about which stick is best to beat the sin out of the child. Time for a change. We want a debate in public and in Parliament, a regulatory and accountability framework for isolation and resources for schools to move to evidence-informed behaviour practice. We want to redirect Department for Education funding to help schools make this shift.

As for the dimension of the booth? I feel uncomfortable that fellow professionals think any form of barrier around a child is OK.

Paul Dix, a former teacher, is an education consultant at www.PivotalEducation.com. He helped to found the Ban the Booths campaign

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'Isolation plays an important part in the management of exclusions'

Isolation roomsCaroline Barlow

Until now, I have largely stayed out of the recent debate over isolation booths in schools: I find when Twitter goes polemic there is little nuance or rational debate. I suspect there are elements of truth in much of what has been said but the extreme views and hyperbole do not reflect the best of our profession.

For example, an over-focus on the use of “booths” as a physical entity rather belies the importance of the approaches used in and around them; approaches that can feed into the whole-school ethos, its culture and approach to behaviour management.

In truth, I do believe there is a role for isolation rooms in mainstream schools and that it is sensible that arrangements are made to ensure that students within them are seated in such a way as not to be a distraction to each other.

It is perfectly sensible to remove some students from the mainstream classroom environment – the students who cannot uphold behaviour expectations – for two simple reasons. Firstly, so that the students themselves experience consequence for their actions, but also so that the school continues to function successfully.

Pastoral support

For us at our school, internal removal or exclusion is used as part of an overall approach to behaviour and always with clarity for the students and the parent as to why they have been placed there. It is never for more than a day or two at most and it is part of an escalating approach to a pattern of behaviours or a significant incident, and, much like most of our work, it is individualised to the student concerned.

Of course, any internal exclusion will be accompanied by associated pastoral support and restorative work, which should allow students to better understand why they are there and what they might do differently in similar circumstances. It often also includes a resolve meeting between two parties.

Isolation or internal exclusion, however it is managed, plays an important part in the management of exclusions. For many students, they are far more effective than fixed-term exclusions where the restorative input or calm conducive environment for reflection may not be so readily available.

For all these reasons, I would not support a ban. Of course, schools must be held to account on how such a policy is used, monitored and evaluated, along with the impact on reoccurrence and impact on subsequent behaviour, but each head has the right to make the choices they believe to be right for their students.

Caroline Barlow is head of Heathfield Community College in East Sussex and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

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