News coverage of strict schools and their use of disciplinary measures such as isolation has become a regular part of the news cycle, with the start of every term being accompanied by ‘spot the difference’ images of regulation and non-regulation pairs of black footwear. There is a danger that this is distracting us from the important issue. Which is that in England we regularly put children and young people in isolation, a controversial practice that quite possibly is against their human rights
Isolation – sending children to a separate place where they are not to talk or interact with peers and instead must work alone in silence – is used on a regular basis to control secondary school children and to ensure and enforce compliance with the rules. It is not generally a measure of last resort, instead seeming to be part of a zero tolerance towards infractions recently touted as the way to turn schools around. Isolation is regularly used as a threat and punishment for minor uniform and behavioural infractions, newspaper headlines on pupils being sent to isolation or excluded for incorrect school uniform on first days back to school becoming routine.
There is limited information available about the use of isolation, who gets put there, how often it is used and so on. Unlike exclusions there are no requirements on schools to record or publicly share this information. However schools are very upfront and open about the way they use isolation units and there is support for it at high levels.
Former Labour schools minister Jim Knight, now chief education adviser to TES Global, reported a visit to the school and the inclusion unit in glowing terms. His concerns that the units might be unfriendly to children, he said, were allayed. In Mr Knight’s opinion it was a positive development, that children liked it because they like clear and consistent boundaries which the system provided.
The headteacher of Henbury School in Bristol describes it as a binary system. “Students are either ready to learn, or they are not.” What this means is two strikes and you’re out. For a first infraction – talking when they are not supposed to be, not focusing, or being ‘off task’ – their name will be written up on the board. A second in the same lesson means being sent to the isolation room for five full lessons plus an hour after school detention. The headteacher reports that students are enthusiastic, staff are enthusiastic, parents are supportive.
However, this apparent acceptance and lack of voiced opposition does not, of course, mean that it is an acceptable practice. As a 2010 paper into the use of isolation units ‘Pupils or Prisoners’ by Barker et Al states: “We need to recognise that simply because a dominant regime is powerful enough to reproduce itself as ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of those subject to its control does not necessarily mean that it is indeed legitimate, or in this case, free from scrutiny in relation to the UK’s adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Certainly not everyone supports the use of isolation. Behaviour management guru and governmental advisor Paul Dix, founder of Pivotal Education, points out that the maximum amount of time it is permitted to lock young offenders in a cell is three hours, substantially less than the three days that some schools leave young people in isolation. He challenges the school’s self reported successes and the idea that putting children in isolation could possibly produce positive changes in pupils’ behaviour as being ‘completely bizarre’ stating that there was no such evidence to back this up. In Holland, he says, you could be prosecuted for imposing isolation on children but in the UK no-one is challenging what is happening in our schools. “It is completely inhumane.”
Sharon Paley, based in the UK at the British Institute of Learning Disability (BILD), is one of the country’s leading experts in seclusion rooms. She says that most people, especially parents, have the gut reaction that isolation is immoral. However it can be hard for parents when professionals are presenting a sanitised sounding “time out” to respond appropriately. They may feel powerless or worry that their child will be excluded if they don’t allow it.
Sharon Paley points out that: “For a child to learn and understand how to manage their emotions and any behaviour which might be seen as ‘challenging’ by other people they are likely to need support, guidance and explanation. If a child is isolated from others whenever they exhibit a behaviour which is perceived as ‘challenging’ by others it’s unlikely they will be able to reflect on why they have been left alone, or experience any guidance relating to their behaviour, it’s actually more likely this is a frightening experience for any child, and for a child with a disability it would possibly be more frightening.”
Paul Dix points out that the children who fill up school isolation rooms are the very ones who most need help. “Ones with the most complex needs – those with additional learning needs, the most vulnerable, the most damaged, the ones who are suffering emotional trauma.”
Furthermore isolation can be seen to be deliberately punitive. Research has highlighted that the spaces are designed like penal institutions and combined with the disciplinary tactics used gave the units a ‘prison like feel’. One unit supervisor quoted said that the children said it felt like prison.
“Well, a lot of them do say that they feel that they’re in a prison. I explain to them that it isn’t a prison and that the door isn’t locked, as it would be in a prison. But a lot of them say they feel as though this is what a prison would feel like.”
The Mirror reported a story of a father refusing to allow his son to be placed in isolation as the school wished. He insisted on seeing the space for himself. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like something out of Guantanamo Bay. The room is painted totally black. The walls, the partitions, the window blinds – everything was black. The partitions down one side created four cells where school kids are expected to sit at a desk all day.”
‘Pupils or Prisoners’ concluded that the ways in which isolation functioned was to remove agency from young people. It noted that while this was a common practice in many institutional populations, the fact that it was being practised on under 16s who had no choice but to go to school made a difference. “Adults, through their social status and institutional power located within the broader educational system are able to legitimise the control and containment of children (for example through these Seclusion Units) in ways that would be unacceptable for many other sections of the population.”
Governmental guidance over the use of isolation has changed markedly over the last couple of decades. The 2002 ‘Guidance for special schools, health and care settings’ by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Schools classed seclusion as ‘Restrictive Physical Intervention’ which was only to be used in an emergency situation. However, in 2010 Department of Education research compared isolation favourably to exclusion as being ‘more effective and less expensive’, and a step which retained students right to be educated, preventing them from feeling disenfranchised. Most recent non-statutory advice, ‘Advice for Head teachers and staff in all schools’ (DfE, 2014) supports schools placing children in an area (an isolation room) away from other pupils for a limited period stipulating that “schools should ensure that pupils are kept in seclusion or isolation no longer than is necessary and that their time spent there is used as constructively as possible.”
Potentially an abuse of human rights
A report by the Centre for the Advancement of Positive Behaviour Support (part of advocacy and rights organisation BILD) into the use of seclusion, isolation and time out flagged as ‘dangerous’ the lack of guidance over what could be considered exceptional circumstances, especially given the context of punishment not safety, and lack of guidance over how isolation should be managed by staff.
The line between isolation and seclusion is the question of whether children were confined to the area they were isolated in. In the many substantiated accounts from schools, children placed in isolation were regularly not permitted to leave the room except for supervised use of the toilet. The report pointed out that even if doors were left unlocked students – with and without learning difficulties – were likely to feel they were secluded “as a threat or the presence of staff outside the door may be enough to keep them from leaving of their own free will.”
It is likely that isolation or seclusion contravenes Article 5 of the Human Rights Act: the right to liberty and security.
UK legislation is much clearer on the question of use of isolation in areas outside of education. The Children Act (1989) says any practice such as ‘time out’ or seclusion, which prevents a child from leaving a room or building of his own free will, may be deemed a ‘restriction of liberty’. Advice for staff working in children’s homes is that seclusion should not be used.
The Mental Health Act Code of Practice (2015) highlights the risks of isolation. “Seclusion can be a traumatic experience for any individual but can have particularly adverse implications for the emotional development of a child or young person.”
The key findings of the Centre for the Advancement of Positive Behaviour Support report were that seclusion outside of emergency use is not acceptable and likely to be false imprisonment and as such a breach of Human Rights and criminal law and that seclusion was likely to cause psychological harm.
Facing up to reality
The use of disciplinary measures such as these have got to make us, at the very least, examine our ideas about schools. School is talked of as a positive experience for children and young people and discussed in terms of their ‘right’ to attend. But children have no choice about whether to attend. They have no choice about what they can do once they are there. And they are made to conform to rules they had no part in agreeing to, by punishment that is possibly against their human rights. As professor of psychology Peter Gray puts it, school is a prison. It is time we faced up to this and it is time we did something about it.