Former pupils who come back to visit bring stories of isolation booths being used for trivial and bizarre reasons: the wrong colour shoes earned one girl a day of isolation; a boy who shaved his head for charity would have been isolated until the hair grew back, except that his mother chose to keep him at home instead; and then there was the boy in year 10 placed in isolation and, to his distress and his mother’s fury, consequently excluded from Maths and English classes, because of failure to do his Spanish homework.
Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child quite simply states that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children. It is difficult to see how the decisions to place these children in isolation could possibly be considered as being in their best interests. Yet even worse is the use of booths as punishment for more serious offences.
When I think of the children I have known who have presented the most difficult and challenging behaviours I recall Adam (not his real name, of course). Adam had a dog. One day his mother’s then boyfriend poured lighter fuel over the dog and set fire to it, to teach Adam a lesson.
Or I think of Ben (not his real name, either). When he joined us on a managed move two of Ben’s brothers were in prison, one of them for murder.
Or there’s Carla (who is not actually called Carla). Carla’s autism meant she found it very difficult to manage her emotions. Whenever she was under stress she would let us know it was all too much by having the most spectacular meltdowns. While she was with us I twice finished the summer term with a fine impression of Carla’s teeth clearly visible on my forearm.
Adam suspected his mum disliked him. She did. In her own shocking words she once told me, “I f-ing hate him.” Ben was given no respect, or consideration at home. Carla believed her meltdowns meant no-one liked her: no-one at all. When she apologised after her outbursts there were often genuine tears in her eyes. There is no punishment anyone could possibly mete out that would ever have had any chance of modifying Adam, Ben or Carla’s behaviour. Ben grew up with violence all around him; Carla’s meltdowns were an expression of her distress. Someone set fire to Adam’s dog to teach him a lesson: even if we wanted to, how could we compete with that?
Placing these three in isolation booths, requiring them to sit still without any human interaction, possibly for hours at a time, would simply have made their already difficult situations worse.
One September Carla left us. She moved to alternative provision (AP). In December the AP closed abruptly and she returned to us without notice. Her first day back, every member of staff who saw her knew that we were in for more of the difficult times we had known before. Yet, as I walked down the corridor with her, every single member of staff we passed smiled and had a cheerful greeting: “How are you?” “Great to see you again!” “You’re looking well!” “We missed you.” That, right there, was what gave us our only chance of succeeding with Carla.
What Adam, Ben and Carla all needed was to be loved. Unconditionally. To know that they belonged. This does not mean ignoring their poor behaviour. They needed us to teach them how to behave, but to do it with kindness, never by stripping them of even more of their already shredded self-respect.
John Cosgrove, Headteacher
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