A Matter of Rights and Wrongs #BanTheBooths

It’s exactly three weeks since I first caught sight of a photograph of a room full of isolation booths, and was told that they were built and used for punishing children at a school, here in England, in the 21st century. In the immediate aftermath I was plunged into a twitter storm of discovering that they are relatively commonplace; that they have been deployed for many years in some places; that they have been the cause of armies of parents removing their children from the state education to which they are entitled, just in order to protect them. I’ve also learnt that they they are loosely ‘permitted’ by minimalist DfE guidance; unregulated in any real way in terms of process or recording requirements; that they are – at least to some teaching professionals who’ve challenged me – viewed as anything ranging from a mundane practical necessity (to which I was squeamishly over-reacting), through to being a positive expression of a proud school ethos for a ‘high-performing’ school.

Kathy Evans, is CEO of Children England and CYPNow Children & Young People’s Champion 2018

I’ve also learnt of the great passion and commitment of the many educationalists, parents and teachers campaigning to call this practice to a halt. I’ve learned just how much great, inspiring practice among teachers and school leaders there is that can be shared liberally in helping schools to dismantle their booths, adopt different approaches, and to improve the whole school experience for every child and all its teachers in the course of doing so. All of that experience during the last three weeks has felt like high-speed ‘catch-up’ on a deeply entrenched ongoing debate in the education sector of which I had been completely (and frankly blissfully!) unaware. I must admit, however, that in truth I am still emotionally stuck, still reeling at that first moment of revelation – and I think it’s important that I don’t forget it.


My first conscious thought was to be catapulted back to my experience of becoming a residential social worker in a children’s home, back in 1992. The home at which I first worked and trained had never used such draconian methods, but even from my first days of induction I was made very aware of the recent shockwaves that had been sent through the whole residential care sector by the revelations of ‘pindown’ in a small minority of children’s homes. Pindown had been a management regime for ‘cracking down’ on children’s wilful or defiant behaviour in their care homes, ranging from forcing children to dress in pyjamas and slippers at all times to deter them running away, to prolonged periods of being kept in isolation and detention. Pindown had become normalised among staff in the homes that deployed it over many years, even if some staff may have had their initial misgivings, and others left because they couldn’t change it, or stand by it. Its advocates genuinely believed it was a necessity, and for the children’s own good in the long run, even if it appeared draconian to the untrained observer, or the ‘naive’ new recruit. They were practices that people who didn’t run children’s homes might not like the look of, but only care professionals knew the realities of what they were having to deal with – or so their argument went.


When the silence finally broke on pindown regimes, major public inquiry and government policy revisions ensued. In the aftershock, with all the public consternation that poured onto the whole profession, the home at which I began my training understood that even though they didn’t have pindown policies, they needed to reflect on their own practices too. Had they also normalised to managerial practices that were in fact hurtful or thoughtless to the children in our care? Had they put their adult desire for the smooth-running of the care home above the feelings and dignity of any child whose home it was, however difficult their behaviour might have been to manage at times? I learnt my profession among beautiful, committed practitioners who dealt brilliantly with some very challenging traumatised behaviour. Under their tutelage I learnt that part of being a true professional is always being willing to consider that you might be wrong; and precisely because it is part of your day-to-day reality, it might take the observations and gut reactions of untrained people ‘outside’ the profession to make you aware of it. It led, among other things, to children’s homes having regular independent visitors who are nothing to do with the council or the home, to meet and talk with the children who live there.


My second, equally strong reaction was to think that isolation booths should be legally challenged on human rights grounds. Like every other part of the public sector state schools have binding duties under the Human Rights Act 1998. The beautiful simplicity of the Human Rights Act is that it takes no pre-set view at all on ‘the right way’ to deliver education, or indeed any other kind of public service. It doesn’t pretend to tell teachers how, or what, to teach, or how to run their school. It simply says that every individual in our society is entitled to certain standards of treatment by the state whatever higher objectives a policy or initiative may have. Whatever the ‘ends’ being pursued (eg a well-behaved school) they cannot be pursued by ‘any means’ if those means infringe the rights or dignity of a person in the course of doing so. I will await the forthcoming court case court case on behalf of a pupil who was allegedly badly treated by a Multi Academy Trust with great interest, but I already know that no Judge is likely to accept any simplistic argument that his harsh treatment was justified in the name of prioritising the other pupils in his class, or at his school. Our human rights don’t work that way – and our rights do belong each and every one of us, adult and child. We are all entitled to be treated with dignity and respect as individuals, even in ‘collective’ settings and situations where many different people and their rights have to be balanced. When decisions affecting our rights are at stake, we have the right to a fair process, to be heard and listened to.  When punishments are warranted they still have to be humane, reasonable and proportionate. The interests of the many cannot simplistically be prayed in aid of the disregard or mistreatment of the one, or the minority.


Much of my reaction over the last three weeks is no doubt influenced by being a children’s social care worker and a children’s rights campaigner, the daughter of a mother who made teaching her life’s vocation and of a father who was a human rights rights lawyer. Some readers may dismiss all of that experience as leaving me unqualified to comment on school management techniques. My immediate reaction wasn’t really coming from any of those ‘rationalised’ professional perspectives though – it was visceral. When I first saw those booths and imagined sitting in one, in motionless silence for a whole day, I was thinking and feeling as a child – and that feeling is what I really can’t shift. Childhood is the universal common denominator of all human beings, whoever we go on to become as adults; we have all experienced being small and brand new to a world in which adults are big and powerful, and a day really feels like a lifetime.


We don’t become a different species when we grow up – our inner child will always be the oldest part of us, however long we live. The vast majority of my friends and family first encountered school isolation booths in the same sudden way as I did, and reacted just as powerfully, from exactly the same visceral instincts. They aren’t teachers, nor am I. They are medics, IT geeks, engineers, car salesmen, designers, housing support workers, advertising execs, writers, shop assistants, musicians, social workers, bar staff: some are also parents; all are former children. I think the commonality of our reactions, without any common profession, is about our common experience and understanding of being a child. Being human. It would be a real shame if the booth-using minority in today’s school system can’t find the humility to listen to the ‘untrained’ outside observer on their practices, can’t reflect critically on the chance they might be mistaken, in the same way as my mentors and colleagues in children’s homes after pindown 30 years ago. But for those who really can’t see any reason to listen, reflect or change, there’s a court case coming that just might force them to.

Kathy Evans CEO Children England

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