I have spent twenty-five years teaching and leading schools across Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Cheshire. I have led a school with a resource base for children with statements for behaviour, I have led a school out of an OFSTED Category, and I have worked as Local Authority Improvement Advisor with a number of schools that require improvement.
In my experience, the vast majority of children who display the most challenging behaviour have a significant challenge establishing a sense of belonging. This can be a result of a difficult start to life, communication and learning difficulties, a chaotic home life, or from being excluded from school. There are two routes to school exclusion: through the official routes of fixed term and permanent exclusions, or the more widespread practice of social exclusion.
Tragically, I have worked with children who have moved schools two, three or sometimes four times before the age of nine. I have witnessed children demonised by small groups of parents who use the language of zero tolerance and no excuses. I have seen schools where a disproportionate number of the most challenging children in a local area attend because neighbouring Headteachers tell parents that the school “up the road” is good with behaviour. The incentives for excluding through the back door are high, with an improved league table position and more funds available to spend on “well behaved” children.
There are other forms of social exclusion in our schools that I am less familiar with; these include an insistence on an expensive uniform and sports kits, school trips that cost more than a family holiday and hidden extras that nurseries ask parent to contribute to. I thought I was well informed on the subject of exclusion until Monday 12th November when I discovered the practice of exclusion through excessive isolation as reported by BBC News.
I was aware that some schools used isolation, and I agree there are times when children need to be removed from a class for a short period, taught in a small group or taught on their own. However, I was genuinely shocked by the reported conditions of isolation used in some of our schools; large classrooms converted into isolation suites, poorly lit booths where children completed worksheet after worksheet, children spending seven hours a day in self-styled punishment booths. My professional opinion is that excessive isolation will cause the most vulnerable pupils harm, and is likely to be a passport to full-time disengagement.
I acknowledge that not all schools are misusing isolation and Vic Goddard’s blog talks openly about the conditions of isolation and how alternatives to exclusion are being used at Passmore Academy.
However, I do believe that excessive, punitive isolation is fundamentally wrong.
For our most vulnerable children developing a sense of belonging takes time, resilience, and love. Children of all ages need trusted adults who will teach them how to behave, they need clear rules and boundaries, and they need interventions that are time-limited and do not cause further emotional damage. They need a proportional response to poor conduct that does not significantly disrupt the learning of others; they need interventions that do not prejudice their entitlement to full-time education, and finally, they need an approach that will enable them to learn from their mistakes.
The best schools I visit have a strong sense of place and a core identity that is deeply felt by all the pupils and staff. The best schools have brilliant adults that show relentless kindness and take responsibility for all the children in their community.
Therefore, I am supporting the #BantheBooths campaign which calls for:
• The removal of deep confinement booths in all schools
• The regulation and reporting of all children isolated for more than half a day
• Funding to support schools in shifting from Isolation booths to better practice
I fully appreciate that not every booth is misused, but there are too many examples of excessive use, too many examples of disengaged children being off-rolled to the “school up the road”, and too many parents choosing home education. (1)
Schools in England have more freedoms than ever before, the #BanTheBooths campaign is a clarion call for School Leaders and Governors to develop robust reporting and monitoring arrangements to enable schools to evaluate the impact and conditions of isolation in their own schools.